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Soldiers storm mosque in Egypt

by KAREEM FAHIM New York Times News Service on August 18, 2013 1:00 AM

CAIRO — Soldiers fired on a Cairo mosque Saturday where supporters of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, were sheltering, briefly turning a central thoroughfare into a war zone in a further sign that Egypt’s new military rulers are struggling to impose order days after security forces killed hundreds of anti-government Islamists.

Soldiers and policemen eventually stormed and cleared the Fath mosque, according to the state news agency. As curfew fell, the details of how the siege ended and how many people might have been injured remained unclear, though there were no reports of large-scale casualties. A witness said dozens of people who had been inside were detained and placed in police trucks and army vehicles.

The violence at the mosque came a day after battles throughout Egypt — between security forces and Islamists, and among civilians fighting one another — left at least 173 people dead, according to an official count. That raised the death toll to at least 1,000 since Wednesday, the day security forces brutally ended Islamist sit-ins over the military’s deposing of the democratically elected president.

The mosque standoff began Friday when Morsi’s supporters turned the mosque into a field hospital and a morgue during clashes with the security services. It appeared that the security forces this time had worked to try to negotiate an end to the standoff.

But ending the siege was complicated by hundreds of civilian opponents of the Islamists who surrounded the mosque and beat Morsi’s supporters as they emerged, despite attempts by the soldiers to bring out at least some of the Islamists safely. The civilians, armed with rubber hoses, metal pipes or wooden clubs, also attacked or detained journalists in the area.

It was not clear whether the vigilantes surrounding the mosque Saturday had been collaborating with the security services, who have long relied on plainclothes enforcers to brutally break up demonstrations. Some echoed the relentless campaign by government officials and the state news media to paint Morsi’s supporters as terrorists.

Civilians have added a layer of menace to Egypt’s violence in recent days, as so-called popular committees set up checkpoints in neighborhoods, searching cars and occasionally robbing their drivers. On Friday, armed men roamed Cairo freely, their allegiances, to Morsi or to the military, unclear.

Standing among the police officers Saturday, a man tried to stir up a crowd. “The mosque is full of weapons,” he said, though a reporter who visited the mosque late Friday saw no weapons inside.

Several reporters were attacked by civilians outside the mosque Saturday, including a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley, who wrote on Twitter that he had been surrounded by a mob that “duffed me up a bit,” and that his laptop computer and cellphone had been stolen before he was taken to a police station.

On Saturday, an adviser to Egypt’s interim president, Mustafa Hegazy, lashed out at the foreign news media and Western countries for ignoring violence by the Islamists, warning “those who give international, financial or moral cover for the acts of violence and terrorism.”

“Egypt is not a soft state,” he said. “It is not a follower. It has never been and will never be.”

The standoff at the mosque was emblematic of Egypt’s wider chaos, with no end in sight to a feud between Morsi’s supporters and the military that has devolved into violent conflict since last week.

There were signs on Saturday that the civil strife could intensify, as the government proposed measures aimed at further limiting the influence of the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, or possibly trying to eradicate it.

And, perhaps adding further energy to the cycle of bloodshed and revenge, the Brotherhood announced that the son of its spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, had been killed during the fighting outside the mosque Friday “by live ammunition.” The movement had previously announced that the grandson of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was killed during the same clashes.

Last week, the 17-year old daughter of a senior Brotherhood leader was killed when the army and the police tore through the encampment of Morsi’s supporters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, submitted a proposal to the ministry that regulates nongovernmental groups to ban the Islamist movement, his spokesman said Saturday. In a news conference, the spokesman, Sherif Shawky, said the world had seen the “organized terrorism and sinful aggressions on the citizens” by a “small faction that lost its mind and was blinded by the lust for power, and the dreams of coming back.”

It was unclear if Beblawi was suggesting that the Brotherhood could be allowed to maintain its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Shawky asserted that the government was still interested in an “inclusive” political process, but only after “this homeland belongs to everyone.” In the meantime, the government has continued to sideline its opponents. The state news media said hundreds of Brotherhood members had been arrested across Egypt over the last two days.

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