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It was just before 7am at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque when a flurry of automatic rifle fire signalled the start of a military operation that would leave hundreds dead, thousands wounded and threw Egypt into an even deeper political crisis.
Those gathered at a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in protest camp near the mosque had expected an intervention by the security forces for several weeks. They had feared bloodshed ever since they began demanding the reinstatement of the country’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi.
However, it still came as a surprise when the military moved into the camp with such decisive force at dawn yesterday, bringing the six week stand-off to a violent end.
An opening salvo of shots forced Mr Morsi’s supporters to dive for cover, before an unrelenting barrage of tear gas canisters rained down on the makeshift shelters. Police in riot gear and armoured bulldozers moved in, while snipers moved on to rooftops surrounding the square outside the Rabaa mosque and began firing on targets. Military helicopters swooped low over the encampment.
Desert-coloured army troop carriers supported the bulldozers that slammed into protesters’ barricades of sandbags and paving stones. Loudspeaker warnings were carried over the square’s defences, telling the thousands of demonstrators to leave the area to take designated routes to safety.
The Brotherhood’s leaders, who had led the protest since Mr Morsi was toppled by the military last month, scrambled to respond from a makeshift stage. Marshals shouted at the crowd to hold their ground. “Don’t leave: it’s a trap to arrest you.” Quickly, however, the women and children who had filled the site began to flee as the carnage started.
Police marksmen unleashed a steady stream of bullets that whipped through the tear gas and smoke from fires. Clambering on to the barricades, young men held their arms aloft, goading the snipers. “We give our blood and our soul for Islam,” they chanted.
Early death tolls suggest that at least 40 people died in the first hour. Many suffered gunshot wounds to the head, neck or chest. “They think they can make us leave, but look around you,” said Ahmed Sayeed, 30. “We said we were willing to die, this is the proof.” His friend echoed his defiance. “We aren’t leaving. I have my kids in there, we are all ready to die for our freedom,” he said.
For many others, the frailty of age or the fear of meeting an untimely end forced them to abandon the protest.
“We couldn’t breathe, there was gas everywhere. And then they opened fire. I lost my best friend in the chaos, but when I came back, his body was lying on the floor. There was blood everywhere,” said Waleed Fouad, a businessman.
Relations of the demonstrators gathered outside police lines, making frantic attempts to contact their families. “I left overnight so I could finally get some sleep,” said Mai Arafa. “I left my fiancé. He says he won’t leave.”
Shaking as she spoke, Miss Arafa said that she was ready to join her fiancé, Samer, if she could find a way to re-enter the camp. “I cannot desert him, and I will not desert this cause. I am not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I did vote for Mohammed Morsi and the way he has been stolen from his people is the greatest injustice of all.”
As morning turned to afternoon, casualties continued to pour into the makeshift hospital at the centre of the camp. Inside, exhausted doctors were overwhelmed by the flow of wounded. The floors were covered in blood.
Stretchers had to travel through a corridor of gunfire to reach the ambulances waiting on the edge of the sit-in.
Weary and bloodstained demonstrators struggled to ferry the wounded into cars that sped off to try to find treatment. “We cannot go to the governmental hospitals, we don’t trust them. We are frightened they will just arrest or kill the patients,” said Hassan Ali, an aircraft engineer, who, despite there being a fully-equipped hospital outside Rabaa, took his brother to a field clinic in a different district.
State television announced that a second demonstration site at Nadha Square, near Cairo University, had been cleared with relative ease before midday.
At one point, a dozen protesters, mostly men with beards wearing traditional Islamic garb, were seen handcuffed and sitting under guard outside the campus. ONTV news showed firearms and rounds of ammunition allegedly seized in the raid. The demonstrators fled while some skirmished with anti-Morsi mobs. Witnesses said the police held back as the two sides shot at each other with pistols.
In an attempt to show that violence was being perpetrated on both sides, video footage from army helicopters showed men behind palm trees firing Kalashnikov assault rifles at police lines. Other reports said barrels of petrol were smuggled into Rafaa square to make bombs.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the interior minister, said that 43 police had been killed in the day’s violence. He said the two protest camps had been cleared completely.
A government spokesman was shown on television saluting the efforts of the security forces for “imposing order with relatively low casualty figures”.
As police continued to clear the Rabaa site, clashes raged across the country. In what appeared to be retaliation against minority communities seen as supporters of the coup, at least half a dozen churches were burnt in Sohag, Minya and other locations in Upper Egypt.
The Egyptian Central Bank instructed banks to close in areas affected by the unrest. The ministry of antiquities also ordered the site of the Giza pyramids to close to visitors, along with the Egyptian Museum in the heart of Cairo.
Wildly varying estimates of the death toll were issued by both sides. The health ministry said the number killed was 149 with 1,403 wounded. The activist run Anti-Coup Alliance declared that 2,200 were killed and 10,000 injured.
A spokesman for the Brotherhood said more than 500 were killed. At the makeshift morgues, witnesses published pictures of victims lined up.
Security officials announced a round-up of senior Brotherhood politicians. Mohamed El-Beltagi was one of those arrested, before it was announced that his daughter Asmaa, 17, had been shot in the chest by vigilantes. Other leaders were also reported to have suffered personal loss.
A deep well of support for the military appeared undiminished by the bloodshed. Residents gathered behind military lines outside Rabaa al-Adawiya, shouting “the army and the people are one hand”.
The encampments had grown increasingly unpopular among local people and the broader public. Amnesty International has documented cases of torture within the sit-in and Egyptian media outlets routinely portray the Brotherhood as terrorists. Leaning out of his apartment window, a colonel watched the scene unfold, saying: “This is necessary, it is the only way. They are terrorists and they have brought chaos with them.”
More than 10 hours after security forces moved in to clear the sites, crowds were still gathering on the roads to Rabaa. They had marched from Salam mosque in Nasr City, Nour mosque in Abbaseeyeh and other parts of the capital in a show of solidarity, ignoring the military curfew.
Volunteers at Nuri Khatab mosque near Rabaa were still treating the wounded at dusk. The body of Assem Sayyid, 56, lay in a corner covered by a plastic shroud. Ahmed Maadi, 56, the civil engineer who had dragged in the body, his white shirt stained in the victim’s blood, rummaged through this wallet looking for a clue of how to contact his family. He found a crumpled piece of paper. The note, stained with blood, was addressed to two friends or relations: “If I die today please pray over my body.”