PORT SAID, Egypt (AP) — Thousands of residents of the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said in eastern Egypt rallied Monday in a funeral procession for civilians killed during street battles with security forces, as military police deployed to secure the gathering.
Fighting throughout the day Sunday killed two policemen and three civilians as protesters pelted police forces with rocks and fire bombs and the force responded with tear gas, and birdshots, while military troops got caught in the middle trying to stop the violence, according to witnesses.
Thousands gathered outside a city mosque and performed prayers for the dead Monday. They then began processions carrying the coffins one after another to the cemetery, chanting, "the martyr is the beloved of God" and waving black-white-and-green flags of Port Said, that have become a symbol of the city's revolt against the government.
Military police cars roamed the area and military armored vehicles lined up streets leading to the cemetery.
"We want retribution," the gathering chanted. "It is now war between us and you, Interior Ministry."
One protester raised a banner reading: "I came to die for freedom, Port Said."
The fighting on Sunday prompted the military to intervene to break up the clashes, the first such intervention by the army since the military was deployed in Port Said in late January when tension between protesters and police first erupted.
Witnesses described a tense scene between the police and the military during the clashes. Army officers tried but failed to negotiate an end to the fighting. At one point, the military got out of the way as protesters clashed with the police, but when soldiers got hit by much of the tear gas and the projectiles flying through the air, the troops fired in the air in the direction of the police forces to break up the street fights.
At least one senior military officer was injured in the fighting, medical officials said.
Port Said, on the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Suez Canal, has been in turmoil since late January, when a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 people, mostly residents of the city, for involvement in Egypt's deadliest soccer riot in February 2012. The verdicts sparked angry protests in the city, which turned into deadly clashes with police, leaving more than 40 dead, including two policemen.
Since then, residents have been outraged by what they call excessive force by the police and by the central government's response — Islamist President Mohammed Morsi called the protesters "thugs" and has generally backed the security forces. The police said most of the protester deaths came during an attempt to storm a prison.
For nearly three weeks, the city has seen protests, strikes and work stoppages, including the blocking of a major port.
The police had all but disappeared since the January clashes. On Sunday, however, thousands of protesters marched on the city's main police building after word emerged that 39 defendants in the soccer violence case had been transferred to prisons outside the city. The move apparently aimed to ensure calm ahead of a March 9 hearing in the case that is expected to confirm the death sentences and issue new verdicts for police officers.
The protesters Sunday lobbed rocks and firebombs at the police building, located in a government complex protected by the military. The police, heavily deployed around their building, moved out to try to push back the protesters.
Mohammed Atef, a 25-year-old protester at the clashes, said military officers tried to negotiate with the police to get them to retreat, but failed. At which point, the military moved back to one section of the government complex, he said, suffering with the protesters from the tear gas fired by the police.
It is not exactly clear what prompted the military to move back in to separate the protesters and police. Atef said when gunfire was heard in the area, military soldiers jumped on their vehicles and moved through the crowds to cheers from the protesters. They started firing in the air at the direction of the police, he said.
People chanted at one point: "The people and army are one hand."
"We had doubted the military, thought it was only there to protect installations. What they did yesterday restored our confidence," Atef said. "They felt they injustice. They decided to protect us too."
The military denied it had fired at the police in a short statement late Sunday, indicating the tense situation. The military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said the armed forces were protecting installations and separating protesters and the Interior Ministry force.