Egyptian anti government protesters throw stones during clashes in downtown...

Egyptian anti government protesters throw stones during clashes in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. Credit: AP

Egyptian army tanks and soldiers cleared away pro-government rioters and deployed between them and protesters seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, moving to halt violence as the prime minister made an unprecedented apology Thursday for the assault by regime backers that turned central Cairo into a battle zone.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said the attack Wednesday on the anti-Mubarak protesters was a “blatant mistake,” acknowledged it was likely organized and promised to investigate who was behind it.

The protesters accuse the regime of organizing the assault, using paid thugs and policemen in civilian clothes, in an attempt to crush their movement. Government supporters charged the protest camp in central Tahrir Square Wednesday afternoon, sparking uncontrolled violence that lasted until the next morning, as the two sides battled with rocks, sticks, bottles and firebombs and soldiers largely stood by without intervening.

Thursday morning, the army fanned out to separate the two sides and allowed thousands more protesters to enter their camp in the square. Soldiers then stepped aside as the anti-government side surged ahead in the afternoon in resumed clashes.

With volleys of stones, the protesters pushed back their rivals swarmed onto a nearby highway overpass that their regime supporters had used as a high ground to batter them.

At the same time, Mubarak supporters carried out a string of attacks on journalists around the square. One Greek print journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, and a photographer was punched, his equipment smashed. Arab TV network Al-Jazeera reported two correspondents attacked. The army started rounding up journalists, possibly for their own protection.

Shafiq’s highly unusual apology and the army intervention suggested at least some in the regime want to step back from Wednesday’s dangerous turn — the first outbreak of street violence between the two sides in what is now 10 days of unprecedented protests demanding Mubarak, unquestioned leader for nearly 30 years, quit power.

The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, whose vigil in Tahrir Square had been peaceful for days, raised international outrage, including a sharp rebuke from Washington, which has considered Egypt its most important Arab ally for decades, and sends it $1.5 billion a year in aid.

“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. The military began to move with muscle to stop the fighting for the first time early Thursday after a barrage of automatic gunfire hit the anti-government camp before dawn. The shooting killed five people, according to the health minister, bringing the death toll since the fighting began Wednesday to eight.

Four tanks cleared a highway overpass from which Mubarak supporters had hurled rocks and firebombs onto the protesters. On the streets below, several hundred soldiers carrying rifles lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square.

A sense of victory ran through the protesters, even as they organized their ranks in the streets in case of a renewed assault. “Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area,” said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who stayed hunkered in the square through the night, hunkered down against the thousands besieging the entrances. “We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square.” He refused to give his full name.

Bands of Mubarak supporters moved through side streets, trading volleys of stone-throwing with the protesters and attacking cars to stop supplies from reaching the protest camp. One band stopped a car, ripped open the trunk and found boxes of juice, water and food, which they took before forcing the driver to flee.

The Mubarak backers seethed with anger at a protest movement that state TV and media have depicted as causing the chaos and paralyzing businesses and livelihoods. “You in Tahrir are the reason we can’t live a normal life,” one screamed as he threw stones in a side street.

The apology by Shafiq, who was appointed by Mubarak over the weekend, was highly unusual from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes. His promise to investigate who organized the attack came only hours after the Interior Ministry issued a denial that any of its police were involved.

“I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it’s neither logical nor rational,” Shafiq told state TV. “Everything that happened yesterday will be investigated so everyone knows who was behind it.” He later told a press conference that the attack “seemed to have been organized” but said he did not know by whom.

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down immediately, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term — a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.

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