CAIRO (AP) — Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers swept into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, chasing protesters and beating them to the ground with sticks and tossing journalists' TV cameras off of balconies in the second day of a violent crackdown on anti-military protesters that has left eight dead and hundreds injured.
The violent, chaotic scenes have brought to the fore the simmering tensions between the ruling military council that took power after Hosni Mubarak's ouster and activists demanding the generals transfer power immediately to civilians. The clashes also serve as a near repeat of the deadly street fighting between youth protesters and security forces in November that lasted for days and left more than 40 dead.
Early Saturday, hundreds of protesters hurled stones at security forces who sealed off the streets around parliament with barbed wire and large concrete blocks. Soldiers on rooftops pelted the crowds below with stones, prompting many of the protesters to pick up helmets, satellite dishes or sheets of metal to try to shield themselves.
Stones, dirt and shattered glass littered the streets downtown, while flames leapt out of the windows of a two-story building set ablaze near parliament, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the sky.
Witnesses said soldiers wielding batons and dressed in riot gear then chased protesters through the streets and into Tahrir Square, which served as the epicenter of the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February. Footage broadcast on the private CBC television network showed soldiers beating two protesters with sticks, repeatedly stomping on the head of one, before leaving the motionless bodies on the pavement.
Soldiers set fire to tents inside the square, and swept through buildings where television crews were filming from and confiscated their equipment and briefly detained journalists.
Egypt's state-run news agency MENA said at least eight people have been killed and around 300 people injured in the two days of clashes.
Egypt's prime minister defended the security forces' response. While he acknowledged that people have died from gunshot wounds, he denied the military and the police had fired at protesters. Instead, he said "a group came from the back and fired at protesters" and that his government is for "the salvation of the revolution."
He charged the anti-military protests outside the Cabinet building as "anti-revolution."
"I feel very sad and in so much pain," he told reporters in a press conference broadcast on Egyptian state TV. "I stress here that the armed forces didn't engage with protesters and didn't leave the building."
The military in the past has blamed a third party for the majority of incidents that have seen protesters shot.
Rights groups and activists, however, charge that the military is carrying on the practices of the old regime, including arresting and beating dissidents. Many Egyptians have grown increasingly frustrated with its handling of the country's transition period, and activists accuse the ruling generals of trying to hang on to power.
Mustafa Ali, a protester who was wounded by pellet shot in clashes last month, accused the ruling generals Saturday of instigating the violence to "find a justification to remain in power and divide up people into factions."
The military council polished its reputation in the past few weeks with two peaceful rounds of voting in parliamentary elections that are widely viewed as the fairest in the country's modern history.
The second round of voting took place Wednesday and Thursday in nine of the country's 27 provinces. It covered vast rural areas where the religious stand of Islamist parties has strong support.
Images of troops protecting polling centers and soldiers carrying the elderly to the polls have served to boost the military's image as guardians of the country. The military remains the ultimate authority on all matters of state in absence of a president.
The latest round of violence touched off late Thursday after soldiers stormed an antimilitary protest camp outside the Cabinet building near Tahrir Square, expelling demonstrators demanding an end to military rule and an immediate transfer of power to a civilian authority. Witnesses said troops snatched a protester, taking him into the parliament building and beating him.
Funerals were expected Saturday for those killed a day earlier. Among the dead was Sheik Emad Effat, a cleric from Al-Azhar, Egypt's most eminent religious institution. Effat had taken a pro-revolutionary position, criticizing the military and issuing a religious decree forbidding voting for former members of the regime in elections. He was shot in the chest after joining the protesters outside the Cabinet.
In a statement read on state TV Friday night, the ruling military said its forces did not intend to break up the protest and said officers showed self-restraint, denying the used any gunfire. It said the clashes began when a military officer was attacked while on duty and protesters tried to break into the parliament compound.
The young activists who led the protests against Mubarak have not translated that success into results at the polls, where Islamist parties won a clear majority of seats in the first round of voting last month over the more liberal parties that emerged from the uprising. Results from this week's second round are expected in the coming days, with the rest of the country set to vote next month.
Members of a civilian advisory panel created by the military this month as a gesture to protesters suspended their work, demanding an immediate end to violence against protesters and a formal apology from the ruling military council. The panel is also seeking an independent investigation into the clashes. Eight of its members resigned in protest.