CAIRO – Security forces fired tear gas at a prison truck Sunday in an attempt to free a police officer from rioting detainees, killing at least 36 suspects rounded up during streets clashes between Islamist supporters of the country’s ousted president and police, officials said.
The deaths of the prisoners, captured during the fierce fighting in recent days around Cairo’s Ramses Square, came as Egypt’s army leader Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi vowed that the military would not tolerate further violence after four days of nationwide clashes left nearly 900 people dead.
While el-Sissi called for the inclusion of Islamists in the government, security forces detained Muslim Brotherhood members in raids aimed at stopping more planned rallies supporting ousted President Mohammed Morsi – which the military-backed government says fuels the violent unrest.
The killed detainees were part of a prison truck convoy of some 600 people heading to Abu Zaabal prison in northern Egypt, the officials told the Associated Press. Detainees in one of the trucks rioted Sunday night and managed to capture a police officer inside, the officials said.
Security forces fired tear gas into the truck in hopes of freeing the badly beaten officer, the officials said. The officials said those killed died from suffocating on the gas.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
However, the officials’ version of events contradicted reports about the incident carried by state media. The official website of Egyptian state television reported that the deaths took place after security forces clashed with militants near the prison and detainees came under fire while trying to escape. The official MENA state news agency also said the trucks came under attack from gunmen.
State media also said all those killed and the gunmen belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that Morsi hails from. The officials who spoke to AP said some of the detainees belonged to the Brotherhood, while others didn’t.
The differences in the accounts could not be immediately reconciled Sunday night.
The officials who spoke to the AP said that the detainees were rounded up during the past two days of street violence around Cairo’s Ramses square, clashes that killed scores of people. On Saturday alone, clashes between Morsi supporters and police killed 79 people, according to a government tally released Sunday and carried by MENA. That raised the death toll for four days of unrest across the country to nearly 900 people killed.
El-Sissi, speaking earlier Sunday at a gathering of top military commanders and police chiefs, again said the army has no intention of seizing power in the Arab world’s most populous country. El-Sissi removed Morsi in the July 3 coup after four days of mass rallies by millions of Egyptians who demanded the president step down.
“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching the nation and terrorizing the citizens,” el-Sissi said in a speech aired on state television.
El-Sissi also said Islamists must be included in the country’s politics moving forward. A military timetable calls for the nation’s constitution to be amended and for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in 2014.
El-Sissi’s remarks come ahead of an anticipated harsher stance by the military-backed government toward the Brotherhood. The Cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss potentially banning the group, a long-outlawed organization that swept to power in the country’s first democratic elections a year ago.
A possible ban – which authorities say would be implemented over the group’s use of violence – would be a repeat of the decades-long struggle between the state and the Brotherhood. It also would drain the group’s financial resources and allow for mass arrests of its members. That likely would diminish the chances of a negotiated solution to the crisis and push it again underground.
The Brotherhood, however, has shown no signs of backing down.
Under the banner of an anti-coup alliance, the group held protests Sunday, though a planned demonstration in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in southern Cairo appeared to fizzle out.
Unrest has swept Egypt since Wednesday’s dismantling of two encampments of Morsi supporters in Cairo. Some 70 police officers were killed in clashes with protesters or retaliatory attacks during the same period, according to the Interior Ministry.
In an attempt to cripple the Brotherhood’s protest plans, authorities carried out early morning raids, detaining at least 300 mid-level officials and field operatives in several cities, according to security officials and group statements.
In Egypt’s second-largest city Alexandria, the Brotherhood said on its official website that security forces stormed houses of 34 officials and former lawmakers, but only arrested seven people. Among those targeted was Medhat el-Haddad, the brother of top Morsi’s aide Essam el-Haddad.
In Assiut, 200 miles south of Cairo, 163 of the group’s officials and operatives were rounded up in different towns in the province, security officials said. They said those arrested face charges of instigating violence and orchestrating attacks on police stations and churches.
In the city of Suez, nine people were arrested after being caught on film attacking army vehicles, burning churches and assaulting Christian-owned stores, officials said.
In ancient southern city of Luxor, more than 20 Brotherhood senior officials were detained, officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly to journalists.
The Brotherhood faces increasing public criticism and blame over the ongoing violence in Egypt. The violence in Egypt also has sparked deep concerns worldwide.
In a joint statement Sunday, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council said it was the responsibility of the army and the interim government to end the violence, warning against the use of force. They said EU will “urgently review in the coming days its relations with Egypt” – meaning much-need financial aid could be on the line.
“We regret deeply that international efforts and proposals for building bridges and establishing an inclusive political process … were set aside and a course of confrontation was instead pursued,” the statement by Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy read.
They warned: “This path will not succeed.”
Nearly two weeks of international diplomacy by the EU, U.S. and Arab nations failed to broker a peaceful end to the standoff. Lawmakers in the U.S. expressed greater discontent Sunday with Egypt – and concern about $1.3 billion in annual military aid it gives the Arab nation.
Egypt also lost one of the few doves in the country’s military-backed administration as Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned as vice president in protest of the use of force against Morsi’s supporters, left Cairo for Vienna Sunday. ElBaradei declined to speak to journalists as he left Egypt, where pro-military news outlets have become increasingly hostile toward him.