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19 dead in Coptic Church protest in Cairo

CAIRO -- Mass clashes that drew in Christians angry over a recent church attack, Muslims, and Egyptian security forces raged over a large section of downtown Cairo last night, leaving 19 people dead and more than 150 injured, Health Ministry officials said. It was the worst violence since the 18-day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.

The clashes lasted late into the night. More than 1,000 security forces and armored vehicles were deployed to defend the state television building along the Nile, where the trouble began. The clashes spread to nearby Tahrir Square, drawing in thousands of people.

They battled each other with rocks and firebombs, some tearing up pavement for ammunition and others collecting stones in boxes.

At one point, a group of youth with at least one riot policeman among them dragged a protester by his legs for a long distance. Witnesses said some of the protesters may have snatched weapons from the soldiers and turned them on the military. The protesters also pelted the soldiers with rocks and bottles.

Christians blame Egypt's ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since the ouster of Mubarak. As Egypt undergoes a chaotic power transition and security vacuum, Christians are particularly worried about the increasing show of force by the ultraconservative Islamists.

The Coptic Christian minority makes up about 10 percent of the country of more than 80 million people.

The Christian protesters said their demonstration began as a peaceful attempt to sit in at the television building. They said they came under attack by thugs in plainclothes who rained stones down on them.

"We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual," said Essam Khalili, wearing a white shirt with a cross drawn on it. "Thugs attacked us and a military vehicle jumped over a sidewalk and ran over at least 10 people. I saw them." He said protesters set fire to army vehicles when they saw them hitting the protesters.

Television footage showed some of the Coptic protesters attacking a soldier, while a priest tried to protect him. One soldier collapsed in tears as ambulances rushed to the scene to take away the injured.

The protest began in the Shubra district of northern Cairo, then headed to the state television building, where men in plainclothes attacked about a thousand Christian protesters as they chanted denunciations of the military rulers.

The assailants chased the Christians from the TV building, banging metal street signs to scare them off. Gunshots rang out at the scene, where lines of riot police with shields tried to hold back hundreds of Christian protesters chanting, "This is our country."

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