CAIRO (AP) — Clashes erupted early Saturday in Cairo between security forces and supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi, killing at least 38 protesters and overwhelming field hospitals with the wounded, the Health Ministry said, in an outburst of violence that put the possibility of political reconciliation in the deeply divided nation ever further out of reach.
In chaotic scenes that hinted at the scale of the carnage, pools of blood stained the floors of a makeshift hospital near the front lines as doctors struggled to cope with the flood of casualties. The death toll was one of the biggest since the military, spurred on by mass protests, forced Morsi's government from power more than three weeks ago.
The violence, which raged in the streets near the month-old sit-in held by Morsi's supporters in east Cairo, is likely to harden the resolve of the ousted leader's Muslim Brotherhood, which described the latest bloodshed as a "massacre." On the other side of the political divide, the military-backed interim leadership appears to feel emboldened to move against the Brotherhood following mass rallies on Friday in support of a crackdown against the ousted president and his Islamist allies.
The clashes began after hundreds of Morsi supporters moved out of their encampment outside of the Rabaah al-Adawiyah Mosque late Friday. One group began to set up tents on an adjoining boulevard, where they planned to stay for at least three days, said Mahmoud Zaqzouq, a Brotherhood spokesman. At the same time, he said another group of protesters marched toward a nearby overpass, where they were met by volleys of tear gas from the police. The demonstrators responded by hurling rocks and stones at the security forces.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force, said in a statement that residents in the Cairo neighborhood where the Brotherhood sit-in is located began clashing with marchers, whose protest was cutting off a major artery. The ministry says police intervened to break up the two sides by firing tear gas.
While there are conflicting accounts about who instigated the violence, there is no doubt that the confrontation quickly turned bloody. At first, doctors said half a dozen were killed in the clashes, mostly by birdshots and some live ammunition. At the crack of dawn, the pace of casualties picked up and a nearby field hospital was unable to cope with the influx, according to Yehia Mikkia, a doctor at the makeshift facility.
By the early afternoon, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled el-Khateeb said that 38 people were killed, and another 239 people wounded in the violence.
Mikkia, who also put the death toll at 38, said most of the casualties had wounds to the upper part of the body.
At the makeshift morgue at the sit-in, supporters chanted "The people want to execute the butcher," referring to army chief and Defense Minster Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, as they ushered the dead out to the hospitals.
The bodies of more than 12 men shrouded in white cloth were laid out on the floor of the field hospital. Pools of blood colored the floor red.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Hani Abdel-Latif said 14 policemen and 37 army troops were wounded in the violence. He said that two of the policemen had gunshot wounds to the head. He claimed that the police only used tear gas against the protesters.
"The Interior Ministry confirms its responsibility and warns against the results of following calls for non-peaceful protests and expression of opinion," Abdel-Latif said in a brief statement aired on television.
The bloodshed is one of the deadliest bouts of violence in Egypt since the military deposed Morsi on July 3 after days of massive street protests calling for his ouster. It comes almost three weeks after more than 50 people, mostly Brotherhood supporters, died in a similar outbreak of violence outside a military installation near the same sit-in.
Since the military coup, Egypt's political standoff has deepened as both sides have dug in. The military-backed interim leadership has pushed a fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by early next year.
Morsi's supporters, meanwhile, reject the new political order, and say the military illegally ousted the country's first democratically elected leader. They have kept up their sit-in and held near daily rallies elsewhere in the capital to demand Morsi be reinstated.
While the main sit-in has been peaceful, protests elsewhere have turned violent at times, and some 180 people have been killed in clashes nationwide since June 30 when the demonstrations against Morsi began.
The unrest, as well as claims that Islamist groups are stockpiling weapons and escalating attacks against troops in the Sinai, were used by the country's new military-backed rulers as a basis for demanding popular support. On Wednesday, el-Sissi called for mass rallies to give the military a mandate to fight "violence and terrorism," raising speculation that he may be planning a crackdown on the toppled president's allies.
On Friday, massive crowds turned out to voice their support for a tough hand against Morsi's backers and the Muslim Brotherhood group from which he hails. The ousted president's supporters also held large rallies, although smaller than those of the pro-military camp.
The rival demonstrations in Cairo were mostly peaceful into the evening, but clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi left seven killed in the coastal city of Alexandria.
As crowds gathered on Friday afternoon, authorities announced that Morsi was formally placed under investigation on a host of allegations including murder and conspiracy with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Morsi has been held incommunicado since being taken into military custody on July 3.
Interim President Adly Mansour told the private TV station al-Hayat that his government seeks to include everyone, but it will not accept lawlessness, blocked roads and attacks on state institutions. He urged the pro-Morsi protesters to go home, promising they won't be pursued or arrested.
"I can't negotiate with whoever has committed a crime. But those who were duped or those who want to belong to Egyptian society, we welcome them," he said. But he added: "The state must interfere (against lawlessness) firmly."