CAIRO — As the toll of dead and injured from overnight clashes mounted here Thursday, the beleaguered Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak again refused to resign, warning that his abrupt departure would catapult the nation into unchecked turmoil.
"If I resign today there will be chaos," said Mubarak, who has led Egypt for the last three decades and who, after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets to protest his rule, agreed to leave office at the end of his term in September.
Mubarak's comments, in an interview with ABCs Christiane Amanpour, came as recriminations swirled over a highly choreographed attack on a crowd of anti-government protesters at Tahrir Square as the Egyptian military stood by.
Health authorities say at least 13 people were killed and 1,500 injured in the protracted mayhem.
As the day ebbed in Cairo, authorities were rounding up journalists, seizing their equipment and threatening them. Many were taken into custody; some were later released.
In his interview with ABC, Mubarak said his supporters were not the instigators of the Tahrir Square violence and instead blamed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a banned political party. "I was very unhappy about yesterday. I do not want to see Egyptians fighting each other," he said.
As an apparent reflection of some divisions within the Mubarak government, officials made oddly disparate admissions — first issuing a public apology for the attacks on protesters, then claiming no role in the bedlam.
The newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq made the apology. Not long afterwards, the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, blamed foreign meddling for the recent bloodshed in Egypt and echoed Mubarak's contention that the government had no hand in the deadly attack on protesters in downtown Cairo.
Suleiman urged the opposition to wait less than 200 days for Mubarak to serve out his last term, after which neither he nor his son and once-presumed successor, Gamal, would run for president. Opposition groups are demanding that Mubarak resign immediately.
He said removing the president or dissolving parliament now would only delay the government's ability to meet the protesters' demands, such as making the constitutional amendments that would lift restrictions on political candidates.
In the past few days, the Egyptian government has promoted a message that the country would collapse if Mubarak were forced out before the end of his term in September. State TV repeatedly aired patriotic songs and support from call-in viewers who praised Mubarak for keeping Egypt stable and sovereign.
On Thursday, state authorities arrested or harassed several foreign journalists, and pro-Mubarak thugs set upon dozens of reporters in and around downtown, beating them and smashing their equipment. Foreigners in particular were targeted. In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denounced the concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo.
Wire services reported that military police barged into the offices of an Egyptian human rights group during a meeting and arrested at least five people, including representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, speaking with reporters on Air Force One on the way to a presidential event in Pennsylvania, said he wanted to reiterate the administration's "strong condemnation" of the violence toward the anti-government protesters. He also called the detention of journalists covering the protests "systematic targeting" and said it was "completely and totally unacceptable" and demanded their immediate release.
Gibbs continued to use the word "now" to describe when a visible transition must begin, though again he declined publicly to call for Mubarak to step down.
Tahrir Square was mostly calm Thursday and back in the hands of anti-government activists, who established security cordons and checked IDs at entrances to the square. Army tanks were still in position. Some minor clashes erupted again in roads around the square, sending activists running in the direction of suspected attackers.
Only a handful of Mubarak supporters remained, but the square bore the scars of the all-night battle: rocks were strewn throughout the area, bloodstains were visible on a curb near a makeshift clinic, and protesters sported crude bandages. Stones were lined up on most streets, ready to become weapons if the Mubarak supporters returned.
Suleiman said the pro-democracy campaign against the president is an alien philosophy exported to Egypt by foreign operatives.
"We all respect the father, the leader," Suleiman said of Mubarak, his military service and three decades of leadership.
Suleiman, who was sworn in last week as the first vice president in Mubarak's 30-year rule, acknowledged that the fierce clashes in Tahrir Square appeared coordinated and said investigators would track down the instigators and prosecute them.
"We believe it's a conspiracy. We should find out who's pulling the strings. They will be penalized," Suleiman said. He added, "We were surprised and the state had no hand in this."
The International Crisis Group, which monitors global conflicts and has representatives in Egypt, issued a report Thursday saying that the regime's loyalists were spoiling for a fight and they provoked one. The Crisis Group said the military's failure to stop the attacks risked tarnishing the army, which it called the last public institution with broad national legitimacy.
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Egypt's peaceful transition while he remains in office," the report concluded, citing escalating violence and the opposition's refusal to negotiate until Mubarak goes.
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this article from Cairo. Margaret Talev contributed from Washington.)
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