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Egypt's army intervenes in Port Said clashes

Monday - 3/4/2013, 6:06am  ET

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday, March 3, 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry is wrapping up a visit to Egypt with an appeal for unity and reform to the country's president and military chief. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

SARAH EL DEEB
Associated Press

PORT SAID, Egypt (AP) -- The military intervened in clashes between thousands of protesters and police in a restive Egyptian canal city on Sunday, the latest in a cycle of violence that killed two security members and two civilians, and which continues to rock Egypt two years after the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

Also on Sunday, a court ruled that Mubarak will face a new trial next month on charges related to the killings of hundreds of protesters during the revolution that forced him from power.

Around 5,000 protesters threw rocks and firebombs at police in Port Said late Sunday, the scene of a civil strike now in its second week. Riot police responded with tear gas and bird shot in street battles that lasted for hours.

The battle outside the police and government buildings started early Sunday and continued until past midnight. At one point, Egyptian soldiers intervened by forming a line between the two sides, as protesters climbed the tanks chanting support for the country's armed forces that, unlike the police, have not cracked down on rioters in the city. "The people and the army are one hand!" the demonstrators shouted, urging the soldiers to side with them.

Late on Sunday, the military spokesman denied that soldiers were firing at the police in a short statement indicating the tense situation.

"The armed forces personnel are on the scene to protect the government building and to separate the protesters and the interior ministry force," military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a statement posted on his official Facebook page.

Health official Helmy el-Afani said 325 people were injured in the clashes. Most suffered tear gas inhalation while others were wounded by bird shot. The Interior Ministry said one policeman was killed by gunfire, and one soldier and at least 10 policemen were wounded. A medical official in Port Said later said one of the policemen died of his gunshot wounds and two civilians were killed but the cause of their deaths was not immediately clear. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Many residents of Port Said are demanding retribution for what they claim was excessive police force that led to the deaths of more than 40 civilians in late January. Most were killed during what the security forces said was an attempt by some to storm a prison there.

The embattled Interior Ministry, which oversees Egypt's police force, was unable to contain the anger in the city at the time and the president leaned on the military to protect key installations and buildings. Sunday was the first time the army intervened between police and protesters in Port Said since the military was put in charge of securing the city in late January. The police had all but disappeared since.

Protests swept the city Jan. 26 after a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 people, most from Port Said, for their part in Egypt's deadliest soccer riot in February 2012.

The latest street battles broke out when word emerged that 39 defendants in the case had been transferred to prisons outside the city. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case, said the transfer was necessary to ensure calm before a March 9 court hearing that is expected to issue new verdicts for police officers and other Port Said defendants also charged in connection with the soccer incident.

In Cairo, die-hard soccer fans of the Al-Ahly club, known as the Ultras, are also gearing up for the March 9 verdict. They staged protests around the capital on Sunday that blocked traffic going to the airport, and closed off an area around the central bank.

Most of those killed in the Port Said stadium were Al-Ahly Ultras fans, and the group is pressing for retribution from Port Said soccer fans as well as security officials.

In Cairo, police briefly cleared protesters from Tahrir Square -- once the epicenter of protests against Mubarak. The demonstrators, who have held a sit-in there for the past three months, returned soon after, burning two police vehicles near the famed Egyptian Museum. By nightfall, a handful protesters and riot police continued to clash along a major street near the square.

Amid the tension, President Mohammed Morsi met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo for more than two hours on Sunday, a day after the top American diplomat met six opposition figures out of 11 who were invited. The other five declined to meet Kerry because of Washington's insistence that all Egyptians take part in next month's elections.

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