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Egypt: Media crackdown as violent clashes continue in Cairo

2nd day of violence left many wondering whether force was the last day for Mubarak.

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CAIRO, Egypt — The happy street party in Liberation Square is over.

Violent clashes erupted in downtown Cairo’s city center for a second day in a row on Thursday, after thousands of supporters of President Hosni Mubarak stormed into the square, some riding horses and camels, toward a large crowd of protesters demanding the ouster of Egypt’s leader for the past three decades.

On Thursday the violence was increasingly aimed at journalists, several of whom were arrested.

Three people have so far been confirmed killed and at least 600 injured in the hours-long street-brawl on Wednesday, which showed no sign of abating on Thursday, and which first flared just outside the gates to the country’s world famous Egyptian Museum.

The demonstration, which drew hundreds of thousands of festive pro-democracy protesters earlier in the week, degenerated into utter pandemonium with the arrival of stone-throwing pro-Mubarak demonstrators on Wednesday.

Wooden sticks, rocks and chunks of the streets — ripped up with crowbars — were tossed into crowds in both camps.

Army soldiers guarding Liberation Square have not intervened in the clashes, leaving many astonished pro-reform demonstrators questioning earlier pledges by the military to protect Egyptian citizens.

Fires burned throughout the night on Wednesday, after cars were lit ablaze by homemade Molotov cocktails.

Several pro-Mubarak demonstrators climbed apartment buildings near Liberation Square, tossing glass soda bottles filled with gasoline into the crowds below.

Scores of gunshots were fired during the melee into the early hours of Thursday.

In perhaps the most bizarre spectacle of the day on Wednesday, a small cavalry of pro-Mubarak horsemen and one camel driver charged the opposing side, lashing unarmed pro-reformers with whips and wooden canes.

The clashes come one day after one of the largest pro-reform demonstrations in Egypt’s recent history, and a late-night televised speech by Mubarak promising he would not run for re-election at the end of his term in September.

U.S. President Barack Obama strongly condemned Wednesday’s attack through spokesman Robert Gibbs, who added that the transition of leadership in Egypt should begin sooner than September.

"An orderly transition [of power] must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," said Obama in a speech on Feb. 1.

Egypt is one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, in part because of the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The Arab world’s most populous nation has been rocked by an unprecedented series of protests in the past nine days, posing one of the first serious challenges to Mubarak’s government in his three decades of rule.

A defiant Mubarak has made surprising concessions this week — from sacking his cabinet to the naming of a vice president — in order to quell the growing unrest.

Nothing, however, has so far convinced Egypt’s pro-democracy demonstrators to relent.

“[Mubarak] will leave. Or we will stay,” chanted rock-dodging protesters on Wednesday.

The violence, though, left many Egyptians wondering whether brute force was the last draw performed by a president with dwindling options.

Backers of Mubarak arrived on the scene in coordinated patterns, grouped into tightly-packed microbuses and with weapons on the ready, said pro-democracy protesters, raising accusations that clashes may have been instigated by government security forces themselves.

Egypt’s Ministry of Interior was quick to deny that members of state security were involved.

Plainclothes security forces, however, have been used before to quash political demonstrations and opposition rallies during elections in Egypt, which are frequently marred by allegations of official intimidation.

Several journalists in Liberation Square were reportedly offered police forces identification cards as proof, captured from pro-Mubarak protesters who were delivered to the military to be detained.

Hassan Mitwali, covered in blood after receiving a massive rock to his eye, said he was positive Egypt’s state security was behind the attack.

"As soon as I am healed, in five minutes, I will be back out there protesting, peacefully,” said Mitwali, crying and slouched on the sullied floor of a makeshift health clinic set up in a mosque near Liberation Square. “I will not let Mubarak steal the dreams of 80 million people."

Earlier on Wednesday, pro-Mubarak rallies were tense, but peaceful.

Thousands of pro-Mubarak protesters rallied in the streets Giza, just west of Liberation Square over the Nile River, to counter the heavily attended opposition demonstrations over the past week.

The highly organized marches ended in a large group of around 10,000 pro-Mubarak supporters, which, like a similar demonstration a day earlier, included some members of Egypt’s police services participating in uniform.

Many pro-Mubarak demonstrators said they were angry at “non-patriotic” pro-reformers.

"We will never let Mubarak resign or retire!” screamed Horeya Hussein, 62. “We have no peace and security in our country anymore."

Several pro-government demonstrators said that foreign powers were meddling in Egypt to cause the unprecedented unrest.

Foreign journalists were chased away from covering the protest.

Elsewhere at other pro-Mubarak demonstrations, similar stories of intimidation emerged from other journalists — including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who was reportedly punched on Wednesday.

With bursts of gunfire echoing across Liberation Square into Thursday morning, and reports of dozens more wounded every hour, many pro-reformers were not confident their peaceful movement could last.

"Mubarak has divided people with his speech," said Karim Sabet, a young Egyptian who came to Tahrir Square to voice his discontent with Mubarak. "We came here to be peaceful, but things are getting very ugly. I don't want to be a part of this anymore."

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