Egypt in flames as 'paid thugs' attack Mubarak's opponents

HEAVY gunfire and violent clashes erupted in Cairo again last night as the Egyptian government faced chaos on the streets and mounting political pressure from world leaders abroad.

Gangs of thugs said to be supporting president Hosni Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners, and human rights workers, while the army rounded up overseas journalists and reports of looting were widespread across the capital.

Gunfire rang out in central Tahrir Square yesterday where Mubarak supporters and opponents have been fighting for more than 24 hours. At least eight people have been killed since the unrest began on Wednesday afternoon.

The violence has continued despite attempts by the Army to separate the two sides.

Security officials said a fire was last night raging in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters were ransacking the building. Another building much closer to the square and next to a five-star hotel tower overlooking the Nile River was also on fire.

The officials said other fires had erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the centre. Protesters have accused the regime of using paid thugs and policemen in civilian clothes in an attempt to crush their movement in the violence that broke out on Wednesday, prompting denials from The Interior Ministry that any of its police were involved.

Prime minister Ahmed Shafiq acknowledged that the attack "seemed to have been organised" and said elements had infiltrated what began as a demonstration against the protesters to turn it violent. But he said he did not know who, promising an investigation.

The suspicion that the state may have co-ordinated violence against protesters, whose vigil in Tahrir Square had been peaceful for days, raised international outrage, and brought a sharp rebuke from Washington, which sends Egypt $1.5bn (1bn) a year in aid.

"If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Yesterday, a sense of victory ran through the protesters, even as they prepared for a new assault.

"Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area," said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who stayed hunkered in the square through the night against the thousands besieging the entrances. "We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square."

Bands of Mubarak supporters moved through side streets, trading volleys of stone-throwing with the protesters and attacking cars to stop supplies from reaching the protesters, prompting the military to move in to clear a highway overpass from which Mubarak supporters had hurled missiles.

The crisis is expected to dominate the European Council summit in Brussels today, where all 27 EU states are likely to call for urgent reform.

Egypt's vice president Omar Suleiman has tried to shift the blame for unrest overseas, saying the authorities were ready to talk with anti-government protesters, including activists of the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood, and accepted some of those involved in the demonstrations of the past week had voiced "legitimate, acceptable demands".

But he also claimed there was a foreign conspiracy to destabilise Egypt and that those responsible would be punished.

Vodafone says service hijacked

Vodafone says Egyptian authorities have been using the country's emergency laws to force it to broadcast pro-government text messages during the protests, a practice it described as "unacceptable".

Micro-blogging site Twitter has been buzzing with screen grabs from Egyptian customers showing pro-government text messages sent in the run-up to the violent clashes in Cairo which broke out on Wednesday.

Vodafone Group said in a statement it had no ability to change the content of the messages.