In a dramatic escalation of tensions in Cairo, Egyptian security forces killed at least 30 people during a violent crackdown on sit-in protests conducted by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday morning.
Security forces showered protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, according to reports by several journalists who witnessed the altercations. They also reported the sound of gunfire, saying soldiers with machine guns fired on protesters using live ammunition. Army helicopters could also be seen flying over the Rabaa al-Adawiya square sit-in in Nasr City in eastern Cairo and over the Nahda Square sit-in near Giza in the western part of the city. Thick smoke lingered over the camps and television images showed masked security forces firing at the crowd from rooftops.
Protesters threw stones and shot fireworks at approaching troops. And Islamist clerics and Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on their supporters in the camps to resist and to die as martyrs if they had to. One Muslim Brother standing at Rabaa al-Adawiya square called out to the army, "We are Egyptians, not Israelis. We are your brothers and sisters. Don't kills us!" They also called on all Egyptians to take to the streets to protest the army's actions.
In response to calls for protests, the government announced it would suspend train services across the country in what appeared to be an attempt prevent additional Muslim Brotherhood supporters from traveling to Cairo.
By late morning, both sit-in camps had been surrounded by security forces and at least one -- at Nahda Square -- was completely cleared. Some reporters on the ground claimed that access to the camps by medics had been hindered and that some journalists had been temporarily detained. One Reuters reporter claimed on Twitter that the content of journalists' cameras had been deleted by security forces.
News broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported that the Egyptian Interior Ministry has stated that at least seven people, including three members of the security forces, have been killed and that 78 have been injured. It also confirmed that 200 arrests had been made. But reports on the dead and injured differ widely. Arab news channel Al-Jazeera is estimating 40 based on its sources. The Muslim Brotherhood is claiming that 300 people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured -- figures that could not be independently verified.
Wednesday's developments are worrying because they mark an escalation in the power struggle between Egypt's military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Backers of the Muslim Brotherhood have been protesting since the putsch against President Morsi on July 3 and had barricaded themselves inside the two squares. They are demanding that Morsi be put back in power.
In recent weeks, the army and the interim government had repeatedly warned protesters to clear the squares. The Muslim Brothers rejected such calls, and efforts to mediate by the United States and the European Union failed. Nevertheless, officials in the West are admonishing powerful Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to renounce violence.
In Brussels, officials with the European Union called for restraint by the Egyptian authorities. "The reports of deaths and injuries are extremely worrying," Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, according to the Associated Press. "We reiterate that violence won't lead to any solution and we urge the Egyptian authorities to proceed with utmost restraint," he said.
In recent days, the Egyptian government has been split over how best to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood protests. Some have been calling for forceful action to clear the sit-ins, while others have urged more peaceful methods, like cutting off access to water, electricity or food. On Wednesday, it appeared those pushing for a hard-line approach prevailed.
By Jennifer Birich