Egyptian soldiers armed with clubs and rifles have stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid that reportedly killed at least two people, reigniting the simmering tensions in the country.
Video footage showed hundreds of troops firing weapons and charging in large numbers into the square to clear it.
Tahrir Square – which for 18 days was the centre of the Egyptian revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak — was occupied again on Friday by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians calling for Mubarak to be put on trial, and for the head of the army, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who is the titular head of state, to be removed.
Many demonstrators were demanding that the army council be replaced by a civilian one during a transitional period to democracy, accusing the military of protecting members of the former regime.
The huge turnout followed growing fears that the revolution had been hijacked by the army.
Witnesses in the square said the raid was led by a mixture of army, police and internal security forces. About 300 soldiers swept into the square at around 3am, backed by 20-30 military trucks. Witnesses said firing continued in the square until around 5.30am on Saturday.
Although an army spokesman insisted that only “blanks”, not live bullets, had been fired to warn protesters, images on social media websites appeared to show spent casings of both blank and live shells.
The soldiers honed in on a tent camp in the centre where protesters had formed a human cordon to protect several army officers who had joined the demonstration in defiance of their superiors.
The troops dragged an unknown number of protesters away, throwing them into trucks, which video footage showed driving into the square amid the sound of gunfire. Among those arrested were understood to be soldiers who had joined the protest.
Tamer El Said, an Egyptian filmaker who was in Tahrir Square at the time of the late night attack said: “There was a huge demonstration that started at about 11 o’clock.”
“There were some military officers who joined it who were dissatisfied with what the Supreme Military Council was doing. There were between 15-20 of them. Obviously it was really dangerous for them so the other protesters decided that it would protect them from being arrested by the military police.
“At about 11 o’clock last night the security forces, who had surrounded the square, tried to enter it to try and catch these soldiers but the protesters would not allow them to come in. There was army and police and special forces. At 3 o’clock they attacked the square.”
“They were firing bullets in the air at first then rubber bullets and then live rounds. They pushed all the demonstrators out of the square. Then they started to chase the protesters into the surrounding streets and into the down town area using tear gas and bullets. I have a friend who was there who said there was continuous shooting.”
One female protester, who took refuge in a nearby mosque, said: “I saw women being slapped in the face, women being kicked.”
Troops surrounded the mosque and heavy gunfire was heard for hours.
The military issued a statement afterwards blaming “outlaws” for rioting and violating the country’s 2am to 5am curfew. It said no one was harmed or arrested.
“The armed forces stress that they will not tolerate any acts of rioting or any act that harms the interest of the country and the people,” it said.
As troops withdrew, protesters armed with makeshift weapons returned to the square and dragged debris and barbed wire to seal off the streets leading into it.
“We are staging a sit-in until the field marshal is prosecuted,” said Anas Esmat, a 22-year-old university student.
“The people want the fall of the field marshal,” chanted protesters, in a variation on the chant that has become famous across the Middle East in protests calling for regime change. “Tantawi is Mubarak and Mubarak is Tantawi,” went another chant. Guardian