CAIRO — Security forces moved on Wednesday to clear two camps in Cairo occupied by supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, deploying armored vehicles, bulldozers, tear gas, snipers and helicopters in a sustained and bloody operation that seemed to surprise some protesters with its resolve and to deepen an already profound gulf in Egyptian society.
Witnesses spoke of gunfire from shotguns and automatic rifles as white clouds of tear gas offset plumes of black smoke from burning tires. Protesters arrived at field hospitals with gunshot wounds to the neck and chest. At one location, soldiers were seen firing on a lone protester lobbing rocks from a rooftop. There were reports of dozens of fatalities, including three police officers. Scores of people were arrested, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, news reports said.
The operation also threatened to reinforce regional tensions with Turkey, whose Islamist-backed government opposed the overthrow of Mr. Morsi. The “armed intervention on civilians, on people demonstrating” was “completely unacceptable,” in the words of President Abdullah Gul.
Hours after the operation began, the authorities said they had cleared the smaller of two encampments at Nahda Square near Cairo University. But protesters at the larger camp around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in the northeastern suburb of Nasr City remained defiant but seemed to be under siege by vastly superior forces seeking to uproot them.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators from outside the larger camp, meanwhile, clashed with the police on its approaches, braving waves of tear gas to barricade streets. Some protesters prepared gasoline bombs and broke paving stones to hurl at their adversaries as the confrontation unfolded.
The clashes illuminated the deepening fissures in Egypt between an Islamist movement sustained by the Muslim Brotherhood in support of Mr. Morsi and secular forces who cast the military as protectors.
News agencies reported clashes between civilian supporters and foes of Mr. Morsi in other parts of Cairo. An Egyptian human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the crackdown had spurred counterattacks by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against Coptic Christian churches in Minya and Sohag, south of Cairo, apparently reflecting a perception among Islamists that the Coptic minority had supported the military’s action in ousting Mr. Morsi in early July.
As demonstrations spread to other cities on Wednesday, television footage from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Aswan in the south showed thousands of Morsi supporters taking to the streets to protest the military action in Cairo. The authorities were reported to have suspended rail services in and out of Cairo to prevent pro-Morsi demonstrators from regrouping or summoning reinforcements.
Amid the confusion, there were wildly divergent tallies of the death toll. The Muslim Brotherhood called the operation a “massacre” and put the number of dead in the hundreds, a figure that was not immediately borne out by reporters visiting morgues.
Egypt’s state news agency reported that three members of the security forces had been shot and killed. The Egyptian Health Ministry said nine protesters had died. But, at one makeshift morgue run by pro-Morsi protesters, the number of dead bodies rose from 3 to 12 in a matter of minutes while at another, Agence France-Press reported, one of its reporters counted 43 bodies.
The coordinated action against the Morsi supporters, which had been expected for days, began around 7 a.m. local time. The protesters are seeking the reinstatement of Mr. Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012 and was deposed by the military six weeks ago. In removing Mr. Morsi, the military also suspended the Constitution and installed an interim government presided over by a senior jurist.
A statement from the interim government praised the security forces for showing what it called self-restraint and blaming leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood for inciting violence. “The government holds these leaders fully responsible for any spilled blood, and for all the rioting and violence going on,” the statement said, according to Reuters.
The interim authorities also pledged to pursue a military-based political blueprint for the country’s future in “a way that strives not to exclude any party from participation.”
But, in a further sign of the rift between faith and political power, Al Azhar, the pre-eminent Muslim religious authority, said it had no advance knowledge that the authorities would use aggressive means to disperse the protesters. A statement cited by Agence France-Presse called on all sides to “exercise self-restraint and take into account the interests of the nation” and said the “use of violence has never been an alternative to a political solution.”
The statement followed hours of clashes after army bulldozers moved in to dismantle the defenses set up by protesters.
Images on Al Jazeera television showed a car ablaze and protesters being treated for bloody injuries. Protesters’ tents appeared to have been razed, and a pillar of black smoke rose above palm trees in one of the areas. The footage showed what appeared to be a gunman firing from a rooftop, but the shooter’s identity was not immediately clear.
At Nahda Square, black-uniformed police wearing gas masks and helmets dragged and carried away protesters, the footage showed. At least one of the protesters showed no sign of life as his limp body was loaded into an ambulance. The police seemed to be rounding up protesters in groups as they fled the barrages of tear gas. The footage also showed smoke from burning tires.
State television broadcast images of what it said was a protester firing on security forces with an assault rifle.
An Associated Press television video journalist at the larger of the camps at Nasr City said he heard women screaming as a cloud of white smoke hung over the site in eastern Cairo.
Mohamed Soltan, a representative of protesters there, told Al Jazeera that a cameraman working with the protesters had been shot and killed by a sniper while filming on a stage. There was no official confirmation of the shooting.
According to a recent visitor, the camp in Nasr City was always likely to present the authorities with a greater challenge. Tens of thousands of people have built a well-equipped community there with electricity, Internet access, a hospital, communal kitchens, latrines and showers.
While dozens of people have been killed by the police and the military since the sit-ins began, analysts said, the crackdowns on the protesters seemed to have reinforced their conviction to stay.
Mr. Morsi is being held at an undisclosed location. The military authorities have taken steps toward his criminal prosecution on charges relating to his activities during the revolution that ousted his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
While Egyptians broadly consider Mr. Mubarak’s autocracy to have been fundamentally illegitimate, Mr. Morsi is now under investigation for his own escape from political imprisonment and his work in the Islamist political opposition that helped to topple Mr. Mubarak in 2011.