CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military prosecutor said Thursday his office will take over the investigation into deadly clashes between the army and Coptic Christian protesters, as the military rulers seek to fend off growing criticism over the worst bloodshed since Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
The decision effectively barred the civilian prosecutor from continuing his own inquiry and drew criticism from activists and rights groups who have grown deeply suspicious of the ruling generals' commitment to the reform path in Egypt's post-Mubarak transition to democracy.
The clashes on Sunday night and into Monday morning began with a peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo by minority Christians angry over a recent attack on a church in southern Egypt. Witnesses said the protesters were attacked by crowds hurling stones and clashed with military units guarding the nearby state television building along the Nile.
Many of the 26 people killed — at least 21 of whom were Christians — were crushed by armored military vehicles that sped through crowds of protesters. Other victims had gunshot wounds.
In a news conference Wednesday, generals from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces blamed Christian protesters for the violence and denied firing on them, claiming the soldiers' weapons did not even have live ammunition.
The military's decision Thursday to take full control of the investigation was more evidence, activists said, that the generals are seeking to push their version of events and prevent a further deterioration in their public standing since assuming control of the country after Mubarak's ouster in February.
The clashes marked the bloodiest confrontation between the military and citizens since the uprising.
Military officials said the army wants to conduct the investigation on its own and in private due to the sensitivity of the clashes, to preserve troop morale and because soldiers were killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
State media reported that three soldiers were killed in the clashes, though the military is refusing to give a precise number.
Activists criticized the military's takeover of the probe and said it would not be impartial.
"The military also does not do transparent investigations; it is simply run by orders," said Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights.
He said it could also result in civilians being arrested and brought to trial in military courts, an issue that has been a major complaint of Egypt's activists in the transition period.
Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who successfully campaigned for autopsies to be performed on the victims, called on the prosecutor general to reveal the details of his investigation thus far.
"We will not give up on holding them accountable," he said, referring to the military.
Video of military vehicles plowing through crowds of protesters deepened the rift between the military rulers and activists who do not believe military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister, is serious about reform.
Activists and rights groups countered the military version of events, presenting witness accounts and videos at their own news conference on Thursday. They accused security forces of attacking peaceful protesters who were demanding greater state protection of churches.
Coptic Christians, who represent about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million, say they are treated like second-class citizens and repeated attacks on them go unpunished. Christians have felt increasingly vulnerable since Mubarak's ouster.
The autopsy report found that at least seven of those killed died of single gunshot wounds.
Witnesses said at least four vehicles chased protesters on the street and on sidewalks with the intent to run them over, in contrast with the military's contention that it was "not in the dictionary of the armed forces to run over people."
"I have never seen something so scary since the start of the revolution," said protester Lobna Darwish.
Reporters Without Borders and The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Egyptian authorities to investigate the death of cameraman Wael Mikhael, who was working for a Coptic broadcaster when he was shot in the head while filming the clashes.
The military rulers met with Cabinet officials Thursday and said the government would look into disputed permits for Christian places of worship that have not yet been formally recognized as churches.
A few hundred protesters gathered Thursday night in a major Cairo square, holding candles in a vigil for those killed in the clashes. A banner read: "Our great army killed citizens and threw the bodies in the Nile."
The crowd of Muslims and Christians chanted against the military council, demanding that Tantawi step down. "Tantawi killed my sons," the crowd shouted.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.