CAIRO — Security forces moved today to clear two camps in Cairo occupied by supporters of the ousted president Mohammed 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.
An Egyptian Health Ministry official said this morning that at least 56 people have been killed across the country.
Khaled el-Khateeb told The Associated Press that 28 were killed today in Cairo, where police stormed two sit-in camps by supporters of the deposed Islamist leader, 25 were killed in Minya province south of the capital and one each in the cities of Alexandria, Assiut and Ban Suef.
Separately, an alliance of pro-Morsi groups says the 17-year-old daughter of senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy has been killed. Asmaa Mohammed el-Beltagy was shot dead in the larger of the two vigils stormed by police in Cairo. Her brother Ammar confirmed her death on his Twitter account.
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.
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 Morsi. The “armed intervention on civilians, on people demonstrating” was “completely unacceptable,” in the words of President Abdullah Gul.
Hours after the operation began, 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 police, 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 Morsi and secular forces who cast the military as protectors.
News agencies reported clashes between civilian supporters and foes of 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.
As demonstrations spread to other cities today, 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.
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.
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 Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012 and was deposed by the military six weeks ago. In removing 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 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.