CAIRO — Flames from molotov cocktails lit up downtown Cairo, where massive clashes raged Sunday, after Islamist attacked yet another Christian Church. At least 24 people were killed and more than 200 injured in the worst sectarian violence since the uprising that lead Hosni Mubarak in February after riots and pressure from Obama for him to step down.
The rioting lasted late into the night, bringing out a deployment of more than 1,000 security forces and armored vehicles to defend the state television building along the Nile, where the trouble began. The military clamped a curfew on the area until 7 a.m.
The clashes spread to nearby Tahrir Square, drawing thousands of people to the vast plaza that served as the epicenter of the protests that ousted Mubarak. On Sunday night, the religious wars were a battle of each other with rocks and firebombs, some tearing up pavement for ammunition and others collecting stones in boxes.
At one point, an Egyptian armored security van sped into the crowd of Christians, striking a half-dozen protesters and throwing some into the air. Protesters retaliated by setting fire to military vehicles, a bus and private cars, sending flames rising into the night sky.
After midnight, Muslims roamed downtown streets, attacking cars they suspected had Christian passengers. In many areas, there was no visible police or army presence to confront or stop them.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, blame the country’s Islamic backed ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since Mubarak’s ouster. As Egypt undergoes a chaotic power transition and security vacuum in the wake of the uprising, the Coptic Christian minority is particularly worried about the show of force by Islamist whom want to take Egypt and expel all non-Muslims.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, addressing the nation in a televised speech, said the violence threatened to throw Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition off course.
“These events have taken us back several steps,” he said. “Instead of moving forward to build a modern state on democratic principles we are back to seeking stability and searching for hidden hands — domestic and foreign — that meddle with the country’s security and safety.”
“I call on Egyptian people, Muslims and Christians, women and children, young men and elders to hold their unity,” Sharaf said.
The Christian protesters said their demonstration began as a peaceful attempt to sit in at the television building. But then, they said, they came under attack by Islamic thugs in plainclothes who rained stones down on them and fired pellets.
“The protest was peaceful. We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual,” said Essam Khalili, a protester wearing a white shirt with a cross on it. “Muslim Thugs attacked us and a military vehicle jumped over a sidewalk and ran over at least 10 people. I saw them kill them.”
Wael Roufail, another protester, corroborated the account. “I saw the vehicle running over the protesters. Then they opened fired at us, yelling Allah Akbar” he said.
Khalili said protesters set fire to army vehicles when they saw them running over and hitting the protesters.
Ahmed Yahia, a Muslim resident who lives near the TV building, said he saw the military vehicle plow into protesters. “I saw a man’s head split into two halves and a second body flattened when the armored vehicle ran over it. When some Muslims saw the blood they joined the Christians against the army,” he said.
Television footage showed the military vehicle slamming into the crowd. Coptic protesters were shown attacking a soldier, while a priest tried to protect him. One soldier collapsed in tears as ambulances rushed to the scene to take away the injured.
At least 24 people were killed in the clashes, Health Ministry official Hisham Sheiha said on state TV.
State media reported that Egypt’s interim Cabinet was holding an emergency session to discuss the situation.
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