|The Egyptian cabinet says nine people have been arrested and face questioning by the military [Reuters]|
Clashes between Egyptian security forces and more than 5,000 protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have left more than 1,036 people injured, according to witnesses and medical officials.
Tahrir Square, the epicentre of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, was sealed off early on Wednesday as lines of security forces in riot gear strived to regain control from demonstrators.
Witnesses said the clashes started on Tuesday when police tried to clear a sit-in at the state-TV building, which included families of those killed during the country’s revolution earlier this year, known as the “martyrs”, according to the Daily News, an Egyptian news website.
Witnesses said police attacked the families outside the Balloon Theatre in Agouza, where a planned memorial service for them was taking place.
The interior ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that “people who claimed to be families of martyrs, tried to break into the theatre” in which the service was held.
The Egyptian cabinet on Wednesday announced on its Facebook page that nine people had been arrested and will face questioning from military prosecutors. Later in the day, the newspaper al-Masri al-Youm reported that 44 people had been taken away for questioning, with Reuters reporting that an American and Briton were among them.
Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Cairo, reported: “The original dispute happened between families of the martyrs of the revolution as they were trying to attend an event [and were denied access].
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“At that point there were clashes between police and some of those family members that ultimately spilled over to other parts of the city.
“The protest gained momentum and made its way into Tahrir Square, and ultimately to the interior ministry,” he said.
Rocks and shattered glass littered the streets around Tahrir, as protesters chanted: “Down with the military junta.”
As protests at the ministry died down, the army replaced riot police in guarding the building.
According to the Egyptian health ministry, 1,036 people had been hurt in the clashes, with 40 members of the security forces among them.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has said that he ordered the police to withdraw from Tahrir Square to reduce tension.
Ahmed al-Samman, the prime minister’s media advisor, told Egypt’s official news agency that “extensive investigations” were underway.
“The government won’t rush into judging the events or accuse anyone or any party, but will wait for results of the investigations, and will announce them in all transparency,” he said.
PM Sharaf stressed that the performance of the police had been improving, though some people may not be happy with the gradual return of police and security. He “urged the youth to protect their revolution”.
Our correspondent in Cairo said that police had been aggressive in pushing the crowd back.
He also added that they [police] had not withdrawn completely: “They have moved back from the centre, but they remain in the square.”
The ruling military council issued a statement on its Facebook page early on Wednesday.
It said the Tahrir events aimed at disturbing the security and the stability of the country in an organised plan.
Hisham Safie Eldin, a former Egyptian police officer, described the police action as not ‘excessive’.
“The regrettable events that have been taking place at Tahrir Square since last night and till dawn today have no justification except to undermine stability and security in Egypt according to a calculated and coordinated plan in which the blood of the revolution’s martyrs is used to cause a wedge between the revolutionaries and the security apparatus in Egypt to achieve these goals.
“We urge the great Egyptian people and the youth who launched the revolution not to be carried dragged by such claims, work on resisting and aborting them to maintain Egypt’s security and safety in such difficult circumstances.”
Families of those killed during the revolution have repeatedly voiced frustration with the slow pace of the trials of the policemen and officials accused of killing and ordering the killing of their relatives during the protests. They have also called for Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to stand down.
Our correspondent said:”The standoff between the police and the protesters has intensified given the last few months and the pace of the process towards a democratic and civilian government.
“Many Egyptians have been extremely frustrated by the wheels of justice not spinning fast enough.”
“One of the consistent demands of people across Egypt is that justice for many of the former elements of the regime has been extremely slow,” he said, adding that there concerns about the lack of transparency at the trials as well.
US official meets Tantawi
After a meeting with Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the SCAF, on Wednesday William Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, said a “fair and thorough” inquiry into the violence must take place.
“I emphasised throughout those discussions [with Egyptian leaders] American support for open and inclusive
political process in Egypt, the importance of following through on the commitment to lift the emergency law before the elections. The importance of protecting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” he said.
By 3:30pm local time (1:30pm GMT) on Wednesday afternoon, Mohyeldin reported that traffic was once again flowing at Tahrir Square, and things were returning to a sense of normalcy.
In the first ruling of its kind, however, a Cairo court on Wednesday ordered the interior ministry to pay 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($8,389) to Samir Abdel Mageed, a protester who had been shot in the eye by police on January 28.