CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian army tank moved against supporters of President Hosni Mubarak as they hurled rocks at anti-Muburak protesters in central Cairo, prompting cheers from demonstrators battered by overnight fighting that killed six.
“Allahu Akbar, the army and the people are hand in hand”, chanted protesters barricaded in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, where several thousand people on Thursday joined the hundreds who had camped overnight.
The tank turned its turret towards the stone throwers and soldiers moved to engage them. The Mubarak loyalists fled, but regrouped nearby and resumed throwing stones.
Gunfire was later heard in the square, the centre of demonstrations seeking to end Mubarak’s 30 years of authoritarian rule, Al Arabiya TV reported.
On Monday the army had emboldened protesters by endorsing their demands as legitimate and pledging not to open fire on them. But since Tuesday evening, when Mubarak said he would not stand for re-election in September, the soldiers have largely stood by without intervening.
In the northeast of the country some 4,000 people started a march in Suez calling for Mubarak to step down, while in Ismailia a crowd of 2,000 held a similar demonstration.
In Cairo protesters lined several entrances to the square, holding hands in a human chain, and some were checking people as they entered.
On the road behind the human chain, stones were laid out.
“We are using these stones as a means of defence. Yesterday they attacked us with molotov cocktails (petrol bombs) and all we have to protect ourselves with is stones,” said Ali Kassem, who was part of the human chain.
Though protesters were fewer than in previous days, the level of public dissent remains unprecedented in the heavily policed state.
A Reuters journalist saw protesters overpower someone they claimed was an undercover member of the security services.
Over a loudspeaker a voice urged:
“Don’t beat him. Hand him to us and the organising committee and we will hand him over to the army. The international media is watching us and saying we are peaceful people.”
Some protesters say the pro-Mubarak supporters have been paid for by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).
Mobile phone operator Vodafone accused the Egyptian authorities of using its network to send pro-government text messages to subscribers, without clear attribution. One message sent on Feb 2 seen by Reuters announced the location and timing for a pro-Mubarak rally.
Mohamed al-Samadi, a doctor who had been treating the wounded in a makeshift clinic, said:
“We refuse to go. We can’t let Mubarak stay eight months.”
Egypt’s health minister said six people were killed in the overnight violence and 836 wounded.
“Through the night we were getting dozens of wounded every 15 minutes. We had casualties all over the place. Thugs surrounding us tried to attack more of us but we managed, thankfully, to block their advance,” said Mohamed Abdel Hamid, a doctor.
The Mubarak loyalists opened fire and threw stones and petrol bombs. Protesters barricaded themselves in the square and hurled stones back.
During the day on Wednesday, some Mubarak supporters charged at the anti-government protesters on horseback and on camels.
“What happened yesterday (Wednesday) made us more and more determined to remove President Mubarak,” a spokesman for the protest movement Kefaya, or Enough, told Al Jazeera television.
“There will be no negotiations with any member of Mubarak’s regime after what happened yesterday and what is still happening in Tahrir Square.”