Violent countdown to Egypt elections

At least four people have been killed overnight after security forces tried to clear protesters from Cairo's Tahrir Square, casting a dark shadow over Egypt's first elections since Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Police and military forces used batons, tear gas and birdshot to clear the central square of thousands of protesters who are demanding that the ruling military cede power to a civilian authority.

It was the second day of violence in the Egyptian capital, following a peaceful anti-military mass rally on Friday.

Four people died on Sunday and two people on Saturday, medical sources said, kicking off a violent countdown to the country's first elections since the end of Mubarak's 30-year-rule.

"A man in his twenties died after being shot in the stomach,'' Dr Ahmed al-Sayyed, working in a field hospital in Tahrir, told AFP.

Earlier, another doctor, Abdallah Abdelrahman said that "three people died of asphyxiation during the clashes.''

The health ministry has confirmed three deaths.

Police and troops seized the square only to be beaten back by protesters who triumphantly retook it later, as also happened on Saturday.

The situation remained fluid with ongoing clashes around Tahrir - the symbolic heart of protests that toppled Mubarak in February.

Activists tweeted a video they said showed police dragging a corpse on the ground, in what appears to be Tahrir Square, and leaving it by a rubbish dump.

In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a funeral procession for one of the victims degenerated into clashes with the police who fired volleys of tear gas at mourners, the official MENA news agency reported.

In the canal city of Suez, troops fired live bullets into the air to stop protesters from storming a police station in the city centre.

Protests also broke out in the central cities of Qena and Assiut, a security official said, adding that 55 people had been arrested nationwide.

Egypt's cabinet, which held crisis talks for several hours before moving en masse to the headquarters of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for another meeting, said in a statement that parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28 would proceed on schedule.

Throughout the day, sporadic clashes erupted near the interior ministry on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, which was covered by clouds of tear gas and littered with stones and glass.

In makeshift hospitals set up in mosques around the square, demonstrators received treatment for tear gas inhalation and injuries from rubber bullets and birdshot.

Protesters have been chanting against the SCAF and demanding the ouster of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's long-time defence minister who heads it.

The SCAF in a statement read out on state television said it "regretted'' what was happening, and said it was committed to the elections timetable.

Earlier Mohsen al-Fangari, a member of the council, insisted the election would go ahead as planned and that the authorities were able to guarantee security.

"We will not give in to calls to delay the elections. The armed forces and the interior ministry are able to secure the polling stations,'' Fangari told a talk show on the Egyptian satellite channel Al-Hayat.

Several prominent political figures and intellectuals, including former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, earlier issued a call for a delay to the legislative polls.

They submitted a new transition roadmap which would see an elected constituent assembly draft a constitution and then a presidential election would be held, followed by parliamentary polls.

The recent street protests saw the return of anti-riot police, the branch of the interior ministry most used by the Mubarak regime in its crackdown against protesters but rarely deployed since.

Friday's rally, which grouped Islamist and secular activists, called on the military to hand power to a civilian government and demanded more control over the constitution the new parliament is to draft.

Protesters called for the withdrawal of a government document that proposes supra constitutional principles, which could see the military maintain some control over the country's affairs and keep its budget from public scrutiny.

The military says it will hand over power after a presidential election, which has yet to be scheduled.

Friday's demonstration passed without incident, but when demonstrators returned to the square on Saturday, they were met with violence by security forces.

On Saturday, medics announced the deaths of Ahmed Mahmoud, 23, who sustained a bullet wound to the chest in Cairo, and Baha Eddin Mohammed Hussein, 25, hit by a rubber bullet in Alexandria as protests spread.

In Rome, Italy's new foreign minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle called for an end to the violence in Egypt.

In a joint statement, they said they worried "over the news from Egypt concerning violent clashes between the population and security forces'', it said.

"They appealed to all sides to immediately refrain from any further acts of violence.''

- AFP

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