Egyptian judiciary urges top prosecutor to leave

Associated Press
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Egyptian Christians grieve during a funeral service at the Saint Mark Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, April 7, 2013. Several Egyptians including 4 Christians and a Muslim were killed in sectarian clashes before dawn in Qalubiya, just outside of Cairo on Saturday, April 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's highest judicial body on Sunday urged the nation's top prosecutor to step down less than five months after the president appointed him, reflecting persistent turmoil in the government's upper echelon that has often been accompanied by violence.

Also on Sunday, Christians angered by the killing of four fellow Christians in weekend sectarian violence clashed with a mob throwing rocks and firebombs outside the gate of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.

At least 21 people were injured in the clashes, according to the head of the national ambulances services, Mohammed Sultan. Two local journalists were among those injured, one seriously, according to their newspapers.

The surprise statement from the Supreme Judiciary Council came on a day when Egypt's railway services came to a halt because of a strike by train drivers and conductors. The strike snarled inter-city transit in the nation of some 90 million.

Carried by the official MENA news agency, the statement urged the chief prosecutor, Talaat Abdullah, "to express a wish" to return to his previous job as a judge for the sake of the unity of the judiciary.

Abdullah's appointment in December set off protests by many judges and fellow prosecutors, who called it illegal. It set off days of protests outside his office in downtown Cairo. The protests forced him to tender his resignation, but then he withdrew it and stayed in office.

A court ruling last week annulled the presidential decree appointing Abdullah, but he has continued to carry out his duties. There was no word immediately available from Abdullah on his plans.

Removing Abdullah has been a key demand of the mostly liberal and secular opposition. Sunday's call by the council of the judiciary appeared aimed at offering him an honorable exit, a step toward ending a long-running crisis within the judiciary over the appointment.

During the past two weeks, Abdullah has issued summons against several media celebrities critical of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. They included popular TV satirist Bassem Youssef, who was accused of insulting Morsi and Islam. The satirist was released on bail.

The train drivers and conductors went on strike Sunday to demand better pay in yet another in a string of work stoppages during the past two years.

Transport Minister Hatem Abdel-Lateef approved a 10 percent hike in bonuses routinely given to all railway workers but train drivers and conductors rejected it as too little and went on strike. They are members of a national union representing all railway workers. Thousands of angry passengers crowded train stations. Video footage aired by several TV networks showed deserted platforms and empty trains heading nowhere.

The head of Egypt's Railways Authority, Hussein Zakaria, threatened legal proceedings against train drivers who called for the strike. Speaking to MENA, he said the strike caused "total paralysis" of train services, and that additional public buses were sent to the streets to deal with the backlog of passengers between Cairo and other cities in the Delta, and Alexandria on the Mediterranean.

Sunday's clashes outside the Coptic cathedral began when hundreds of angry Christians began an anti-government march after the funeral, chanting slogans against Morsi, just as several thousand did earlier during the funeral service for the four slain Christians.

Soon after they left the cathedral's complex, a mob, described by witnesses as residents of the area, pelted them with rocks and firebombs, forcing them to return to the sprawling cathedral complex. They also showered the protesters with rocks from the roofs of nearby buildings, according to witness Ibrahim el-Shareef.

Riot police later arrived, firing tear gas at the Christians and the mob. Several tear gas canisters landed inside the cathedral's grounds, causing a panic among women and children who attended the funeral.

Video footage aired live on the private ONTV network showed young men on the roof of a building adjacent to the cathedral firing handguns toward the compound.

The four Christians, along with a Muslim, were killed in clashes on Saturday in a town north of Cairo.

Inside the cathedral, several thousand mourners chanted slogans against Morsi, calling on the Egyptian leader to step down. They shouted "Leave!" and "This is our country, we will not leave."

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 90 million people. They have long complained of discrimination. Attacks against Christians have increased since the ouster two years ago of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.


AP writer Sarah El Deeb contributed.