Chaos consumed Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday as supporters of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak clashed with opposition protesters in running battles that left hundreds of people injured.
The square, a focal point for nine days of anti-government demonstrations, was transformed into a war zone, as hundreds of protesters lobbed stones and regime supporters charged the opposition on camels and horses.
Anti-government demonstrators accused Mubarak and his government of dispatching “thugs” to to attack them, after hundreds of pro-regime partisans marched into the central square around 3:00 pm (1300 GMT).
Clashes began almost immediately, as the two sides faced off, and some of the fiercest battles erupted in front of the world famous Egyptian Museum.
Inside the gates of the museum, soldiers formed a human chain to prevent people from entering the grounds.
At least 10 people were injured in the initial confrontation, an AFP correspondent said. Mubarak supporters on camel and horseback then charged anti-government protesters, who surrounded them, dragging at least six from their animals and beating them, a second AFP correspondent said.
Elsewhere, an angry crowd of anti-Mubarak protesters beat at least 10 pro-regime demonstrators with sticks.
And later, Mubarak partisans dropped concrete blocks and other objects onto opposition protesters from overlooking balconies and roofs.
Soldiers surrounding the square took cover from flying stones, and the windows of at least one army truck were broken. Some troops stood on tanks and appealed for calm but did not otherwise intervene.
Protesters shouted “One, two, where is the Egyptian army?” and anti-Mubarak demonstrators clambered onto tanks to lob stones at regime supporters.
They also commandeered five army trucks, pushing them into place to try to form a barricade between themselves and the Mubarak partisans.
A broad swathe of Egyptian society was involved.
“I’ve come here to defend the freedoms that we’ve won now that they are under threat,” anti-government protester Shibl, a doctor, told AFP.
Nurse Aisha Hussein said dozens of people were being treated at a makeshift clinic in a mosque just off the square.
She described a scene of “absolute mayhem,” as protesters first began to flood into the clinic.
“People are coming in with multiple wounds. All kinds of contusions. We had one guy who needed stitches in two places on his face. Some have broken bones.”
“We reset a shoulder. We had to put it back into place There are all sorts of small wounds being dressed.”
Anti-Mubarak protesters accused the leader’s National Democratic Party (NDP) of orchestrating the clashes and showed an AFP reporter four party membership cards they said were taken from demonstrators who began attacking people.
“The pro-Mubarak NDP and the secret police dressed in plain clothes, they invaded the place to get rid of the revolt,” protester Mohammed Zomor, 63, told AFP.
The opposition said plain-clothes policemen had stormed the square and there were fears that more would move in after dark.
“Members of security forces dressed in plain clothes and a number of thugs have stormed Tahrir Square,” three opposition groups said in a statement. The clashes came after pro-regime demonstrators staged protests at points across Cairo, pledging their allegiance to the beleaguered Mubarak, who has said he will not stand for re-election in September.
But the long-time ruler has not indicated any plans to leave office, a key demand of the anti-government protesters who have shaken Egypt with nine days of unprecedented demonstrations.
In the upmarket Mohandeseen district, an estimated 3,000 people rallied in support of Mubarak, chanting “We don’t want you to go,” and accusing opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei of being a traitor.
A witness said organisers were paying people 100 Egyptian pounds (12 euros, $17) to take part in the pro-Mubarak rally, but this could not be confirmed.
Pro-regime demonstrators also chanted slogans against the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, whose signal has been interrupted by Egypt’s Nilesat for providing instant coverage of the protests, accusing it of siding with the opposition.
“Where is Al-Jazeera? Here is the Egyptian people,” they chanted.