Clashes across Egypt as Islamists protest at referendum plans

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Riot police have clashed with supporters of Egypt’s former Islamist president, leaving two dead as the Muslim Brotherhood renewed calls to protest ahead of a key referendum later this month.

Fighting spread through crowded residential areas in several cities and provinces including Cairo, Giza, Ismailia, and Alexandria, as dozens of Brotherhood members and their supporters threw rocks at security forces who responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Black smoke hung in the air as protesters burnt tyres and threw Molotov cocktails and fireworks at black-clad security forces. A number of police vehicles were set on fire. State television reported one person was killed in the city of Fayoum, south of Cairo, and another in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia.

Protests have rocked Egypt since a military coup ousted Mohammed Morsi on July 3, following claims he was using his election win to impose an Islamist state, sparking massive demonstrations.

The numbers supporting street demonstrations in support of the Islamists have dwindled dramatically after the military-backed interim government launched a crackdown. Hundreds were killed when authorities broke up protest camps, thousands of Brotherhood members have been arrested and scores sent to trial.

As a result the group shifted tactics, relying more on women and student supporters to protest ahead of the second session of Mr Morsi’s trial on January 8 on charges killing of protesters, and the upcoming referendum on a new more secular constitution on January 14-15.

Yesterday three explosions targeted a military and police convoy in volatile northern Sinai, wounding four soldiers close to the border with the Gaza Strip.

Elsewhere in the region, South Sudan’s warring factions have now held preliminary meetings ahead of the official start of negotiations in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Direct talks are expected to start today at Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to fight in the world’s newest country. The US has arranged an evacuation flight for embassy staff.

South Sudan’s government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states whose capitals are under rebel control. President Salva Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Mr Machar on December 15.

But that account has been disputed by some officials who say the violence began when presidential guards from Mr Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Mr Machar. South Sudan is plagued by ethnic tensions.