CAIRO — Hundreds of protesters clashed with Egyptian security forces in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square early Wednesday as the security forces attempted to clear the square after hours of demonstrations by the families of the hundreds of people killed in the January 25th revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
About 3,000 protesters were still in the square when the violence broke at shortly after midnight.
"Give me a bottle," yelled one demonstrator as he dashed across the square. "I just filled my motorbike tank with gasoline. They think they can shoot us with tear gas, I'll show them what I have."
In the melee, at least 66 people were injured, 14 seriously enough to be taken to hospitals, the Egyptian health ministry said. Many of the injured had been struck with clubs wield by the security forces or with tear gas canisters fired into the crowd in hopes of driving them from the square.
The scene was chaotic. Armored vehicles rolled into the square while officers from Central Security, armed with bats, shields and shot guns, fired tear gas canisters and birdshot at the protesters who returned fire with rocks and broken sidewalk tiles.
Two of the protesters were caught in front of the American University building that fronts on the square and beaten before being handcuffed and dragged toward the personnel carriers.
The protests had begun Tuesday morning to mark the death Sunday of the latest victim of the violence during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. Mahmoud Khalid Qutb hd been run over by a Central Security armored vehicle and had died at a downtown Cairo hospital after months of treatment.
Angry protesters called for continued demonstrations and the overthrow of the current caretaker government led by Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's longtime defense minister.
"What we are seeing is an attempt by the police force to return to power and authority," said Gamal Abdel Hakim, 44, a clothing factory worker. "They are defending the remainder of the former corrupt government, including Marshal Tantawi. We should finish what we started."
The demonstrators were egged on in the early morning hours by the imam of the Omar Makram mosque next to Tahrir Square. At 2:15 a.m. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin used the minaret's loud speakers that normally call the faithful to urge defiance.
"I call on the Tahrir youth to stand their ground and depart the square;" Shahim said. "I call on the police to fall back. I demand the police to fall back and release whoever they detained tonight; I call on the police to release the January revolution prisoners."
Shahin called on the protesters to go on strike in Tahrir square till their demands are fulfilled.
Later, when another leading cleric, Sheikh Safwat Hegazi, used the same loudspeakers to urge the protesters to go home, protesters turned their fury on the mosque.
Both sheikhs have been leading protests calling for fair and transparent trials of the former interior minister, Habib El-Adly, and the top officers of the police department who are blamed for the death of more than 850 people during the revolution.
The violence subsided when Egyptian Interior Minister Mansour El-Essawy announced at 3:38 a.m. that he had "ordered all security forces to pull out of Tahrir Square and to halt any contact with the protesters,"
El-Essawy added that he will "personally investigate any violations committed by any members of the police force."
The confrontation was the first violence between the security forces and protesters since May 15, when clashes outside the Israeli Embassy left dozens injured.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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