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PEOPLE/PROTESTORS  KILLED IN CAIRO EGYPT

Bursts of heavy gunfire rained into Cairo’s Tahrir Square before dawn on Thursday as anti-government demonstrators tried to hold the site after a dramatic assault hours earlier by supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

At least four people were killed in the pre-dawn gunfire aimed at anti-regime protesters, medics say, taking the death toll in the past 24 hours to seven.

“All (four) were killed by gunshot, with one hit in the head,” said Dr Mohammed Ismail, at a makeshift clinic in Abdulmenem Riad Square, next to Tahrir Square.

Protest organiser Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance, while another medic, Dr Amr Bahaa, reported receiving a wave of protesters hit by bullets.

“Most of the casualties came in the last three hours, many with gunshot wounds,” Bahaa told Agence France-Presse early today, putting the total wounded toll since Wednesday at more than 1000 people.

Sporadic gunfire started about 4am (1300 AEDT) and lasted for about two hours, while some of the army tanks positioned around the square appeared to move from their positions but they stayed in the area, AFP reported.

El-Naggar said the gunfire came from at least three locations in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene.

Egyptian Jurists Alliance said in a statement that anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square were coming under fire and that several had been killed or wounded.

The gunfire came after backers of Mubarak stormed the Cairo stronghold of anti-regime protesters on Wednesday, sparking clashes in which the government said three people were killed and more than 600 injured.

Throughout Wednesday, Mubarak supporters charged into the square on horses and camels brandishing whips while others rained firebombs from rooftops in what appeared to be an orchestrated assault against protesters trying to topple Egypt’s leader of 30 years.

The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented nine-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down immediately.

The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the United States.

“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Washington, which has called for restraint since demonstrations broke out 10 days ago, deplored the violence against “peaceful protesters” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the attacks on demonstrators were “unacceptable”.

America’s top diplomat Hillary Clinton condemned the “shocking” bloody clashes on Wednesday, in a call to Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Wednesday’s clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents.

From early afternoon until well into the night, regime supporters and opponents threw stones and battled with sticks and fists in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 10 straight days of protests that have rocked the Egyptian regime and sent shock waves around the Arab world.

Several foreign journalists covering the confrontations in Cairo became the target of violent attacks, a media watchdog and news organisations said.

Protesters have said they will proceed with plans for a massive demonstration on Friday, their designated “departure day” for Mubarak.

US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the attacks on the protesters were a “direct threat” to the Egyptian people.

The US State Department issued a stark travel warning for citizens in Egypt on Wednesday, urging those who want to leave to “immediately” head for the airport, adding that any delay was “not advisable”.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard issued her strongest statement yet on the situation, indicating she was not satisfied with Mubarak’s pledge to step down later this year.

“Clearly, a transition is required in Egypt,” Gillard told reporters.

“The time for that transition has come.

“We want that transition to be peaceful and orderly.”

Close to 200 Australians arrived in Germany on today after escaping Cairo on a government-chartered evacuation flight.

The Qantas Boeing 747 had been expected to pick up about 400 people. But Melbourne couple Peter and Penny Duncan, who were on the flight, said people who had wanted to leave had been left behind because of a “miscommunication” by Australian officials.

They had met at a downtown hotel at a scheduled time but officials had failed to get them to the airport in time, Ms Duncan said.

“They are still stuck in the middle of Cairo.”

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said everyone who had wanted to be on the plane had been on it.

“No one was left behind in the hotel,” the spokesperson said.

Some people had registered for the flight but later decided to stay in Egypt, DFAT said.

A second evacuation flight will depart Cairo for Frankfurt on Friday, Australian time. More than 200 people have told DFAT they intend to be on it.

A further 54 Australians have escaped Egypt aboard four Canadian charter flights.

AFP

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