|Thousands thronged to Cairo's Tahrir Square, anticipating Mubarak's resignation [EPA]
The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces has met to discuss the ongoing protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak, the president.
In a statement entitled 'Communique Number One', televised on state television, the army said it had convened the meeting response to the current political turmoil, and that it would continue to convene such meetings.
Thurday's meeting was chaired by Mohamed Tantawi, the defence minister, rather than Mubarak, who, as president, would normally have headed the meeting.
"Based on the responsibility of the armed forces and its commitment to protect the people and its keenness to protect the nation... and in support of the legitimate demands of the people [the army] will continue meeting on a continuous basis to examine measures to be taken to protect the nation and its gains and the ambitions of the great Egyptian people," the statement.
The army's statement was met with a roar of approval from protesters in Tahrir Square, as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters poured in. Thousands also gathered in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, our correspondent reported.
Earlier, Hassan al-Roweni, an Egyptian army commander, told protesters in the square that "everything you want will be realised".
|Al Jazeera's online producer reports from Tahrir Square
Protesters have demanded that Mubarak immediately stand down as president.
Hassam Badrawi, the secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), told the BBC and Channel 4 News on that he expected Mubarak to hand over his powers to Omar Suleiman, the vice-president.
"I think the right thing to do now is to take the action that would satisfy ... protesters," Badrawi told BBC television in a live interview.
Ahmed Shafiq, the country's prime minister, also told the BBC that the president may step down on Thursday evening, and that the situation would be "clarified soon". He told the Reuters news agency, however, that Mubarak remained in control, and that "everything is still in the hands of the president".
However, Anas el-Fekky, Egypt's information minister, denied all reports of Mubarak resigning.
"The president is still in power and he is not stepping down," el-Fekky told Reuters. "The president is not stepping down and everything you heard in the media is a rumour."
State television has announced that Mubarak is due to deliver an address to the nation on Thursday night from the presidential palace in Cairo.
It also reported that Mubarak was meeting with Omar Suleiman, the vice-president, at the presidential palace.
'Witnessing history unfold'
Mahmoud Zaher, a retired general in the Egyptian army, said that Mubarak's absence from the army meeting was a "clear and strong indication that [Mubarak] is no longer present", implying that the Egyptian president was not playing a role in governance any longer.
In short comments ahead of a scheduled speech at Northern Michigan University, Barack Obama, the US president, said the US was watching the situation in Egypt "very closely".
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"What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold," he said, adding that this was a "moment of transformation" for Egypt.
"Going forward, we want ... all Egyptians to know that America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy."
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foriegn affairs chief, said that the 27-nation bloc is ready to help Egypt build a "deep democracy".
"I reiterated that no matter what happens in the next hours and days, the European Union stands ready to hep build the deep democracy that will underpin stability for the people of Egypt," she said in a statement, referring to a conversation she had with Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, earlier in the day.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has played a key role in helping protesters get organised, said on the microblogging site Twitter on Thursday evening: "Mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians."
He added shortly after, however, that protesters should "wait and see" before reaching any conclusions.
Jacky Rowland, our correspondent in Tahrir Square, described the atmosphere as "electric", with "standing room only" in the central Cairo area. She said that thousands gathered there were "celebrating a victory which has been anticipated, rather than actually achieved".
Thousands continue to make their way towards Tahrir Square, our correspondent Hoda Hamid reported.
In Alexandria, Jamal ElShayyal, our correspondent, described the atmosphere as "festive and joyous".
Some opposition groups, however, have said that they are concerned about how Mubarak would hand power over to, were he to resign.
"It looks like a military coup," said Essam al-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but tolerated group which is the biggest organised opposition party in Egypt. "I feel worry and anxiety. The
problem is not with the president it is with the regime."
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Amin Eskander, the leader of the Karama opposition movement said that he believed that Mubarak would stand down. He also said that he was not concerned if power was handed over to the military for an interim period, as he said the army was working in the interests of the people.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, responded to reports that Mubarak may resign by saying that he hoped whoever replaced him would uphold Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, according to an Israeli radio report.
Labour union strikes
The developments come as the 17th day of pro-democracy protests continued across the country on Thursday, with labour unions joining pro-democracy protesters.
|Thousands gathered again at Cairo's Tahrir Square to
call for Mubarak to step down on Thursday [Reuters]
Egyptian labour unions held nationwide strikes for a second day, adding momentum to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo and other cities.
Al Jazeera correspondents in Cairo reported that thousands of doctors, medical students and lawyers, the doctors dressed in white coats and the lawyers in black robes, marched in central Cairo and were hailed by pro-democracy protesters as they entered Tahrir [Liberation] Square.
The artists syndicate and public transport workers, including bus drivers, also joined the strikes, our correspondents reported.
"It's certainly increasing the pressure on the government here," Al Jazeera's Steffanie Dekker, reporting from Cairo, said.
"I think it's worth making the distinction that the strikes going on are more of an economic nature, they are not necessarily jumping on the bandwagon of the protesters in Tahrir Square.
"Many of them are not actually calling for the president to step down, but fighting for better wages, for better working conditions."
Pro-democracy supporters across the country have meanwhile called for a ten-million strong demonstration to take place after this week's Friday prayers.
Hoda Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Cairo, said that the mood in Liberation Square was "one of defiance, and if we judge by what is happening today, then I think ... many more people will heed that call and turn up".
She reported that some protesters had drawn up a list of demands beyond simply the exit of Mubarak. They included the formation of a transition government, which would include a council of presidents, representation from the army and well-respected judges, for the period of one year.
They demanded that parliament be dissolved and that a temporary constitution be put in place while a new one was drawn up by legal experts.
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin in Cairo reported that at least five government buildings, including the governor's office and the office for public housing, were set alight in two straight days of riots in the northeastern town of Port Said. The situation in the city had calmed by Thursday evening, he said.
Meanwhile, an immediate investigation has been launched and possible criminal charges could be brought against the senior officer who ordered the firing on protesters during protests on January 28 protests, Moyheldin said.
The ministry of interior also announced the sacking of the head of security in the New Valley governorate, Moyheldin said.
Also on Thursday, Mahmoud Wagdy, the interior minister, announced that the police were back at work on the streets of the capital.
Meanwhile, Suleiman, the country's vice-president, said on Thursday that his comments to American television station ABC had been taken out of context.
In his interview, Suleiman suggested that Egyptians were "not ready" for democracy. He had also earlier said that if protesters did not enter into dialogue with the Mubarak government, the army may be forced into carrying out a coup.
According to a statement released to a government news agency, Suleiman "emphasised that some sentences in his remarks ... were understood in the wrong way, especially his remarks regarding democratic transition in Egypt".
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said the death toll from violent clashes during protests has reached 302 since January 28.
Egypt's health ministry has denied the figures, saying official statistics would be released shortly.