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Egyptian Government Invites Dialogue, Targets Foreigners


Egyptian Army soldiers restrain a supporter of President Hosni Mubarak near Tahrir Square.

Egypt's government has reached out to its opponents in an attempt to reassert control over an increasingly chaotic state of affairs as violent street protests disrupted normal life in the country for a 10th straight day.

In central Cairo armed supporters of President Hosni Mubarak's regime continued their attacks on antigovernment demonstrators in bloody battles that have killed as many as 10 people and injured several hundred since Wednesday.

In his first television interview since being appointed by Mubarak in a hasty government reshuffle aimed at placating pro-democracy protesters, Vice President Omar Suleiman said the country's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood -- widely seen as the most organized opposition group -- had been invited to meet with the new cabinet as part of a national dialogue.

'No Foreign Interference'

The clashes between pro-democracy protesters -- whose anger over poverty, oppression, and corruption has boiled over in demands that Mubarak relinquish his 30-year grip on power -- and supporters of the regime began two days ago in a mass counterprotest that many believe was organized by the government.

The White House, which has condemned the violence, has taken an increasingly hard line with its longtime Arab ally and called for an "orderly transition of power to begin now" in what is seen as a rejection of Mubarak's plan to remain in office eight more months but not seek reelection in the fall.

In his comments, Vice President Suleimein rejected as "unacceptable" foreign intervention in Egypt's internal affairs, saying: "There are some abnormal ways by which foreign countries have intervened through press declarations and statements.

"To intervene in our affairs and to tell us, 'Do this or do that,' this is unacceptable and we will not allow it at all," he said.

He said political changes could not be rushed and that 70 days would be needed to consider any constitutional amendments, but added also that Mubarak's son, Gamal, would not be a candidate in elections this year.

Speaking in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted to Sulemain's comments by saying: "Vice President Suleiman spoke today about the need for free and fair elections. That is essential. And I urge the government and a broad and credible representation of Egypt's opposition, civil society, and political factions to begin immediately serious negotiations on a peaceful and orderly transition."

The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, has unanimously passed a resolution urging Mubarak to create a caretaker government leading to elections by the end of the year.

The White House later said it was discussing with the Egyptians "a variety of different ways" of moving toward a peaceful transition.

That announcement came as "The New York Times" reported U.S. officials were in talks with Egyptian officials to have Mubarak step down immediately.

PHOTO GALLERY: A siege scenario has developed in Cairo's Tahrir Square after clashes between antigovernment demonstrators and supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Second Day Of Clashes

Mubarak's supporters may have hoped to reverse the momentum of antigovernment protests by intimidating and scaring away the demonstrators, but the violence of the past two days appears to have strengthened the resolve of the antigovernment crowd.

Thousands of people returned to Tahrir Square today to reinforce a hard core of protesters who had hunkered down against gunfire and firebombs overnight to hold the square.

The army used tanks and infantry to create an 80-meter-wide buffer zone in the square in an attempt to separate an estimated 10,000 government supporters from supporters of the regime, who have fought running battles since February 2 in and around the square.

It was the first time the army has taken decisive action to try to halt the violence. By midday, scores of bloodied antigovernment demonstrators were lying in the middle of the square while volunteer doctors tried to treat their injuries.

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pallay told Reuters she believed as many as 300 people have died in the past 36 hours.

The death and injury toll continued to climb even as the newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, issued an unprecedented apology for the February 2 attacks against democracy protesters that turned the center of the city into a battle zone.

Promising an investigation into "who planned" the invasion of men on horseback and camel, who used sticks, knives, and gasoline bombs against peaceful protesters, Shafiq said, "I am just saying one thing to all our brothers from opposite sides: we are brothers, and we will not kill each other over clashing points of view, and what happened was definitely a mistake. "

Like Suleiman, Shafiq signaled that the new government is willing to speak to its critics in an attempt to find a middle ground between calls a complete shift of power and Mubarak's desire to hold onto power until elections are held in eight months.

"Many of the protesters send many messages through some mediators describing their demands. And I will receive some of those young protesters to hold talks together. There is a sort of dialogue among us now and I hope it can be useful for achieving a compromise among the concerned sides," he said.

Egypt's Interior Ministry has denied reports that it organized and supplied plainclothes police as part of the attacking mob.

Attacks On Journalists

Attacks against journalists and human rights activists have increased since the pro-government forces came onto the streets, with reports of kidnapping, beatings, and intimidation suggesting a state-sponsored attempt to keep witnesses away from the clashes.

Two reporters for "The New York Times" were detained by the military police overnight on February 2 and two reporters for "The Washington Post" were among 24 journalists held by the Interior Ministry.

A reporter for the U.S. NPR radio station said she was interviewing a taxi driver about events in a neighborhood outside of the center of Cairo, when "things took a turn." Correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said around a dozen men surrounded her and crew, demanding to see their identification and asking whether they were "Israeli spies or employees of the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera."

She said she and and her Egyptian-American colleague tried to get in their car to leave, but he was punched in the face. Eventually, she said, members of the army showed up and "calmed the mob."

Egyptian soldiers detain an injured antigovernment demonstrator as Mubarak supporters take pictures with their phones.

Mubarak 'Fed Up'

Foreign and Egyptian human rights workers have also been detained, and Amnesty International and Human Rights watch both say they cannot account for some staff members.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the government's harassment of journalists and aid workers, saying it was "completely and totally unacceptable."

Clinton also issued a sharp condemnation. "There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for these attacks. The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists' ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world."

The attacks on journalists and aid workers seemed part of a wider campaign by the government to portray the country as invaded by foreigners bent on abetting Egypt's implosion.

More evidence of that could be seen in a banner headline on the front page of Al-Ahram. which read: "Millions turn out to support Mubarak."

Mubarak himself appeared in a television interview with the U.S. television network ABC today and said he was "fed up," adding, "After 62 years in public service, I have had enough."

He said he was "very unhappy" about the violence on Tahrir Square but denied a government role in it, instead blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the clashes.

Protesters plan more protests on February 4 in what they are calling the "Friday of Departure," which they say is the deadline for Mubarak to announce his resignation.

written by Heather Maher, with agency reports

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