A brief attempt by Egypt's military to interpose a ceasefire between riot police and civilians near the epicentre of protests against military rule has disintegrated into another night of violence around Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Police from the interior ministry's Central Security Forces appeared to fire an unprovoked barrage of tear gas at a large crowd gathered on Mohamed Mahmoud Street on Wednesday afternoon, witnesses said, despite a truce that had settled in after the arrival of army vehicles and religious scholars.
"Protesters are on the front lines to stop the security forces from attacking the rest of us in Tahrir," Rebab el-Mahdy, a politics professor at the American University in Cairo, told Al Jazera.
"Interior ministry forces are out of control ... they're not being professional and they're not being controlled by the military council."
Ambulances raced back from Mohamed Mahmoud Street and other frontline battles south and east of the square throughout the night, ferrying dozens of protesters suffering from tear-gas inhalation.
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Fighting also resumed in other cities. In Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, clashes erupted for another night along a street near the main security directorate.
Riot police there fired tear gas after the withdrawal of the army, which had stepped in to oversee a prisoner release.
Besides Alexandria, clashes were reported in the city of Ismailia that left at least one person dead and two others injured.
During a tour of Tahrir Square during the day, Amr Helmy, the health minister, acknowledged that security forces had used live ammunition, but he denied swirling rumours that they had also fired tear gas mixed with a nerve agent.
Many protesters have described having unusually painful and intense reactions to the tear gas being used in Cairo.
According to Human Rights Watch, doctors and morgue workers have counted at least 22 people shot dead by live ammunition.
At least 35 people have died and 3,250 have been wounded across Egypt since violence broke out on Saturday, the health ministry announced on Wednesday.
The ceasefire in Cairo was reportedly negotiated by religious scholars from al-Azhar University, the historical seat of Sunni theology, after Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, called on the riot police to halt their attacks on protesters.
The military deployed three armoured personnel carriers to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and positioned soldiers between the riot police and protesters, but the truce ended within an hour in a hail of gas.
Thousands of people have remained in Tahrir Square in rejection of concessions offered during a Tuesday-night speech by Field Marshal Muhammed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power in February after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted following an 18-day uprising.
"The people want the fall of the field marshal," they called in thunderous unison, waving large Egyptian flags and signs denouncing the military.
The crisis began when riot police violently cleared a small encampment in Tahrir Square on Saturday, and protesters say the continued fighting has hardened their resolve to remove the military from power and complete a revolution that began in January.
"The entire movement over the past few months has been about putting the military in check. Now, the general sentiment is we don't trust authority, or at least, we don't trust this authority."
- Amr Gharbeia, Egyptian activist
Tantawi announced on state media that the military had no interest in staying in power and that parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on November 28 would go ahead.
He also pledged that a presidential election to replace the military council would take place before July 2012, the first time the military has set a deadline for the vote.
The presidential election would mark the last step in a transition of power to civilian rule.
"We ask for fair elections. We do not care who runs for elections and who is elected president and yet we are accused of being biased," Tantawi said on in his address.
But protesters in Tahrir Square and else have demanded an immediate transfer of power to a civilian council with authority over the SCAF.
"There was nothing he could say that would meet our expectations. They have nothing to give us. All we want is for the end of military rule, immediately," Sherief Gaber, a 27-year-old demonstrator, told Al Jazeera.
"People were burned once by thinking they could trust Mubarak’s people and the only thing they can trust is their own presence in the streets."
Domestic and international pressure for the SCAF to end the violence also continued to mount as the interior ministry riot police appeared increasingly to act without orders from the military.
In the US, the White House said it was "deeply concerned" by the security forces's response, while the state department said the Egyptian government - meaning the SCAF - "has a particular responsibility to restrain security forces" and must "exercise maximum restraint".
Victoria Nuland, the state department spokeswoman, said Washington was "looking forward to the naming of a new Egyptian government".
Also on Wednesday, Navi Pillay, the United Nations' human rights chief, called for a "prompt, impartial and independent investigation" into the riot police's "excessive use of force [and] ... improper use of teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition."
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The SCAF, in a new communique released on its Facebook page on Wednesday, said its forces had not used tear gas and would never "shed the blood" of the Egyptian people. The military urged the people not to listen to "rumors".
Though the SCAF has accepted the resignation of an interim cabinet that it approved earlier this year, a new government has yet to form.
Sources told Al Jazeera the military had asked Novel laureate and presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei to form a "national salvation" government, but ElBaradei was said to be hesitating over whether he would have authority to choose his own ministers.
In Alexandria, lawyers and activists told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that at least two people were killed during protests in the northern city overnight.
At least one man, identified as 38-year-old oil engineer Sherif Sami Abdel Hamid, was killed by live ammunition.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from outside a morgue in Alexandria, said Abdel Hamid was walking with his wife and two children and not participating in the protest when a stray bullet hit him.
Witnesses said a second victim - believed to be a high school student - suffocated from tear gas in the city, though Al Jazeera could not immediately confirm the death.
Source: Al Jazeera