CAIRO - Tens of thousands of pro-government supporters, wielding sticks and whips, charged Wednesday on horses and camels towards Cairo's central square, where thousands were pushing ahead with demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt's health minister said three people were killed in the violence and some 600 were hurt. According to unofficial reports, the number of fatalities is higher.
At least four Molotov cocktails were thrown at the site and the army moved to extinguish the flames, a Reuters witness said. At least two fire bombs target the Egyptian Museum. Speaking to Reuters, Mustafa Naggar, an organiser of the anti-Mubarak protest movement, accused pro-Mubarak "thugs" of throwing the fire bombs.
AFP reported that at least six pro-Mubarak protesters were dragged from their horses and beaten.
Egypt's army denied firing any shots in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where pro- and anti-government protesters were clashing, state television said on Wednesday. An al-Jazeera correspondent earlier said the army had fired shots in the air. A Reuters witness said he heard shots fired, but it was not immediately clear where the shots came from. However, according to later reports the army stepped in and made an effort to curb the violence at the square.
Opposition sources said policemen in plain clothes were beating up the protestors. Tear gas grenades were fired at the square and the pro-government and anti-government protestors were said to be throwing stones at each other.
The rift between the two groups raised fears of a civil war, particularly in light of the tense and emotionally charged atmosphere.
Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei repeated his call for Mubarak to step down immediately and accused the government of using "scare tactics" to try to cling on to power.
"I'm extremely concerned, I mean this is yet another symptom, or another indication, of a criminal regime using criminal acts," ElBaradei told BBC radio from Cairo, when asked about the clashes. "My fear is that it will turn into a bloodbath," he added.
Mubarak supporters were out in the streets for the first time Wednesday in large numbers, demanding an end to the anti-government movement a day after the president went on national television and rejected demands for him to step down.
Those calling for Mubarak to go have been out in Cairo and many other cities for more than a week, and they drew by far their largest crowd on Tuesday when at least a quarter million packed the central Tahrir Square and the downtown area around it. Hundreds of thousands more have turned out in other cities across this nation of 80 million.
Mubarak supporters (Photo: AP)
By early afternoon, an Associated Press reporter saw Mubarak supporters break through a human chain of anti-government protesters trying to defend thousands gathered in Tahrir. They tore down banners denouncing the president and fistfights broke out as they advanced across the massive square in the heart of the capital. Dozens of those involved were injured and some were bleeding from their heads.
"These are the thugs of the (ruling) National Democratic Party. I was at the entrance of Tahrir making a human wall and a and then a group ... scuffled with us and then a rock hit me," said Waleed who was bleeding from his head. "I want Mubarak out."
The anti-government protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them.
The confrontations began just hours after a military spokesman went on national television and asked the protesters to disperse so life in Egypt could go back to normal. During the clashes, soldiers and tanks who have been guarding the square did not appear to intervene.
Almost immediately after Mubarak announced late Tuesday night that he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term and would not leave the country, groups of Mubarak supporters rarely seen before in the week of anti-government protests took to the streets, some carrying knives and sticks.
In Alexandria, clashes erupted right after Mubarak's address between the two sides.
Reuters contributed to this report
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