Egyptian security forces have fought opponents of army rule in Cairo for a fifth day, drawing condemnation from both the United Nations and the United States, as the number of civilians killed in the clashes since Friday rose to 12.
Hundreds have been wounded and scores detained in the wake of the clashes.
Police and soldiers using batons, water cannons and tear gas drove stone-throwing protesters out of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hub of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, over night.
The violence appeared likely to continue, after Egypt’s ruling military council claimed on Monday it had uncovered a plot to burn down parliament.
General Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, interrupted a live news conference to say he had received a call about a “plot to burn parliament and there are now large crowds in Tahrir Square ready to implement the plan”.
Emara was addressing the clashes during the televised news conference on Saturday, and he defended the military’s use of force against the protesters, saying the army had a duty to protect the nation’s installations.
Probe under way
“What are we supposed to do when protesters break the law?” Emara asked. “Should we invite people from abroad to govern our nation?”
He said an investigation into the clashes and the media’s coverage of them was under way. “The media is helping sabotage the state. This is certain.”
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from the capital, Cairo, said the news conference was one of the most defensive given by a member of the ruling military council.
“Essentially the picture that’s being painted is one where the army – and by extension the country – is under attack by these counter-revolutionaries who are trying to attack soldiers and buildings … and have no real ideology or aim behind what they are doing,” she said.
Earlier, protesters said they had seized four soldiers who had been part of the attacking force in the early hours of Monday.
“We quickly got the four into vehicles and drove them away from the square, otherwise they would have been beaten to a pulp by angry protesters who experienced the army’s vicious attacks,” said Sayyid Abu Ella, speaking by telephone from Tahrir.
Late on Sunday, demonstrators had hurled petrol bombs at lines of security forces and chanted “Down with Tantawi”, a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the army council and was Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades.
Wael Abbas, an Egyptian journalist and human rights activist in Cairo, told Al Jazeera that while it was relatively calm on the streets by midday on Monday, at dawn there had been shooting, more arrests, and more deaths.
“They were using a water cannon all night with strange chemicals – it smelled a little bit like cheese and then it smelled like gasoline – and there were Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing,” he said, until the army moved in at dawn.
Responding to the military’s stance that the latest protesters were “counterrevolutionary”, Abbas responded: “We know that the military council are remnants of Mubarak’s regime.”
“They used to steal our money, now they are taking our lives … that’s the definition of counterrevolutionary, in my opinion,” he said.
The violence has drawn condemnation from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who “is highly alarmed by the excessive use of force … by the security forces against protesters”.
Ban called for the “transitional authorities to act with restraint and uphold human rights, including the right to peaceful protest”, according to a statement from his office.
The US secretary of state also weighed in, saying she was “deeply concerned about the continuing reports of violence”.
“I urge Egyptian security forces to respect and protect the universal rights of all Egyptians, including the rights to peaceful free expression and assembly,” said Hillary Clinton.
The violence broke out just after the second stage of a six-week election for Egypt’s new parliament that starts the slow countdown to the army’s return to barracks. The military has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July.
An army source said 164 people had been detained while the state news agency, MENA, said the public prosecutor had detained 123 people accused of resisting the authorities, throwing rocks at the army and police, and setting fire to government buildings.
The prosecutor had released 53 others.