Cairo – Egypt’s prime minister apologized Thursday for the violent attacks on protesters yesterday and said the country’s president has asked him to investigate the security chaos.
“This is a fatal error, and when investigations reveal who is behind this crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise they will be held accountable and will be punished for what they did,” Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on state-owned TV.
Meanwhile, the military — which had largely remained still in the area of Tahrir Square during violent clashes between supporters and foes of President Hosni Mubarak — took position between the clashing groups Thursday. Rocks flew back and forth in an empty construction area in front of a metal barricade that anti-Mubarak protesters set up overnight.
Shafiq and newly-appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman are meeting with the opposition — including protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, state media said Thursday.
Some opposition groups have rejected meeting invitations.
Mounir Abdel-Nour, secretary-general of the secular liberal Wafd Party, said Thursday that his party will not participate.
Ayman Nour, leader of the Al-Ghad party, said his group won’t be part of the dialogue, either.
And Essam El-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood said his group was invited, but will not participate in the talks.
“We refuse to sit with him,” El-Erian said Thursday, referring to Suleiman.
At daybreak Thursday, heavy gunfire reverberated in central Cairo as the two sides continued to face off at the square.
Scores of bandaged demonstrators remained in the square. One man accused of being a pro-Mubarak spy was rushed by a crowd that restrained him. Earlier, anti-Mubarak protesters captured a man, pulled out his identification and learned he was a member of the police — whom anti-government protesters clashed violently with last week.
Egypt’s health minister said on state-run Nile TV that at least five people were killed and 836 injured — including 200 within one hour on Thursday morning.
CNN could not independently verify the casualty toll.
Early Thursday, sustained fire from automatic weapons, including from what sounded like a heavy machine gun, echoed around the square.
Anti-government demonstrators hunkered down behind makeshift barricades and small fires burned in the square, with some spreading to trees and walls. Chunks of concrete and Molotov cocktails flew as the crisis escalated.
In the nation’s second-largest city of Alexandria, trams returned to the streets Thursday for the first time in days.
A group of fishermen said they wanted life to get back to normal. One Mubarak supporter said the protests in Cairo were humiliating.
A national security official in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration told CNN late Wednesday that the situation in the country could “turn really ugly,” and the next 24 to 48 hours will be critical.
Reported fatalities in the first eight days of demonstrations ranged as high as 300, but CNN could not independently confirm the death toll.
Supporters of Mubarak, who had been largely silent since the unrest began, came out in full force Wednesday — in one case wielding whips and thundering through the crowd on horses and camels.
“What you are seeing is the demonstration of the real Egyptian people who are trying to take back their country, trying to take back their street,” said businessman Khaled Ahmed, who described himself as “pro-Egyptian.”
But some observers said the pro-Mubarak push Wednesday was likely orchestrated by a regime bent on breaking up peaceful demonstrations.
“These are tactics that are well-known in Egypt,” Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN’s John King.
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution said the “rent-a-thugs” were likely sanctioned and paid by the government. This is meant to create an image of chaos so the government can move in to restore order, he said.
On Wednesday, some pro-Mubarak demonstrators who were captured by anti-Mubarak protesters confessed that they were paid 50 Egyptian pounds — or less than $10 — to come out and support Mubarak.
It was unclear whether such confrontations were being repeated elsewhere. Other Cairo neighborhoods were calm, and rallies in Egypt’s second-largest city, Alexandria, were largely peaceful.
Some who profess neutrality said Mubarak — who vowed to not seek re-election — should be allowed to finish his term.
“I’d be worried if the president packed up and left at the request of 60,000 people,” Cairo resident Waleed Tawfik said Wednesday. “Eighty-four million is a larger voice … (to) reconstruct the government and reshuffle ministers won’t happen over day and night.”
Tawfik added that Tahrir Square is the size of a football stadium, and the events there are not representative of peaceful protests elsewhere.
“There are 29 governors in Egypt,” Tawfik said. “I don’t understand why the whole international media is focused on a geographic area around about a half-kilometer by a half-kilometer.”
The crisis has paralyzed the Egyptian economy, forcing the closure of banks, train services and schools. Markets are running short of basic food staples.
Suleiman reiterated that the people have been heard, and they should go home and stop demonstrating.
Nile TV sought to portray the unrest as a “foreign conspiracy” fueled by international journalists, several of whom — including CNN’s Anderson Cooper — were attacked during Wednesday’s clashes.
On Tuesday, Mubarak said during a televised speech that he would not seek re-election. Though Mubarak’s concessions were large and remarkable for a man who has held a tight grip on power for three decades, it was too little, too late for many Egyptians.
The Egyptian crisis is among the aftershocks of the revolt in Tunisia that forced the nation’s longtime strongman to flee to Saudi Arabia in January. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh — who has been in office for 32 years — said Wednesday he will not run for president nor hand over power to his son once his term ends in 2013.
And in Jordan, King Abdullah II dismissed his government Tuesday and appointed a new prime minister. CNN