Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cairo clashes claim more victims

Updated October 10, 2011 14:27:00

Source: The World Today | Duration: 7min 19sec

ELEANOR HALL: But we go first today to Egypt's capital Cairo which is in the midst of some of the worst violence since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February.

At least 24 people have been killed and more than 200 injured in clashes between Coptic Christians and security forces. And as we'll hear, many died from horrific injuries that suggest they were run over by armoured vehicles.

The Christians had been demonstrating about a recent attack on one of their churches by Islamic extremists.

The Egyptian cabinet has now called an emergency meeting for tomorrow, vowing the violence won't derail next month's parliamentary elections.

I spoke a short time ago to our Middle East correspondent Ben Knight who's in Cairo.

Ben, just update us on the situation there now. The government has imposed a curfew. Has that calmed the violence?

BEN KNIGHT: Well, yeah. The violence did calm down probably about an hour or so before that although as we were making our way back from the Coptic hospital towards the hotel, it was a pretty long trip because the roads were being blocked by sometimes by police other times in one instance by a very large mob of young men carrying homemade weapons.

So look, it is calm but it is certainly still very tense.

ELEANOR HALL: We're hearing reports of horrific injuries suggesting that some people were crushed by tanks. When you were at the hospital earlier, from what you saw, was that possible?

BEN KNIGHT: I would say it was very possible. We went inside the morgue at the hospital where I saw 17 bodies and I saw the injuries and without getting too graphic, the faces that were caved in, trauma to the body that was caused by not just a blunt instrument but a very large blunt instrument.

Now it is not my place to speculate but before we actually went down to see the protest for ourselves we were watching live pictures on Arab TV of military vehicles, police or army vehicles driving through the crowd of protesters.

ELEANOR HALL: Why do you think the army has cracked down so heavily on these protests?

BEN KNIGHT: Well, there is a bunch of conspiracy theories running around Cairo at the moment. First of all the army promised that it would maintain the security and the safety of Egyptians. You know, the safety and security of the country while it oversaw the transition to democracy. So any kind of protest is a challenge to that and it doesn't like them.

Now having said that there are a number of protests going on pretty much every day around this city but this was a protest by an extremely angry group of Coptic Christians for the attacks at their churches and that their members have come under.

So not only that but it was a march on the offices of state television. Now that's significant because this is seen as a real symbol of the old regime and also of the new one. State television is still functioning as state television and still operating very much in the mould that it was under Hosni Mubarak. It is still toes very much what the government tells it to.

I was watching state television as the protests were going on and it was talking about the number of security forces that had been killed - three at that time. Not a single mention of any injuries, not a single mention of any deaths among the protesters and the broadcasters blaming foreign provocateurs and all those sorts of things.

So the march on state television was significant and that is a building that the Mubarak regime and the army have been very, very careful to protect all the way through.

There aren't many buildings in Cairo that are still surrounded by machine guns but that's one of them.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you say that state television was reporting that three soldiers were killed. What have you been able to confirm about the casualties?

BEN KNIGHT: Nothing on the police or the military side but when I was at that hospital there were 17 bodies in that morgue and I don't know how many people were injured in the emergency room and other parts of that hospital.

Now I don't know if that is the extent of the casualties because while we were there the military came to the hospital and it was impossible for anyone to get in or out and there were clashes going on in the streets outside the hospital.

Now I should point out that this hospital is not near where the protests were. It is about four or five kilometres away, a different part of Cairo so the injured and the dead were taken there then the army went to, it went to the hospital.

So before that happened there were 17 bodies in that morgue that I saw myself. I don't know if there will be any more turning up.

ELEANOR HALL: How destabilising is this sort of thing for the government as it prepares Egypt for its first post Arab Spring parliamentary elections next month?

BEN KNIGHT: Well, look there are some people who would argue that this was in fact instigated by the government. As I said there are a lot of conspiracy theories running around and while I don't normally entertain those, that is something that is very much being discussed here. There is a view that the military does not want to pass on power. It is not serious about taking the country to elections and that this kind of instability is being ignited by the military itself so it has an excuse to crack down and to hang onto power and to push the elections out.

Now there is no evidence of that but that is something that a lot of people here are talking about. Now it has to be pointed out that this is not necessarily violence between Muslims and Christians in Cairo itself although that is not unheard of but this sort of thing tends to happen in the more rural areas but what the Christians have been saying is that it has been incited, that particularly the governor of the province of Aswan has been inciting this violence against them and the military council is doing nothing to stop it.

They want the governor removed, they want the military council to protect them and they say that they are not doing that and that's why you are seeing these very angry protests this week. One of the churches was burnt down last week and that's what sparked this.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, the Egyptian cabinet has called an emergency meeting. If what you're suggesting is that there is a lot of concern that it is the government in fact inciting this violence, what is that emergency meeting likely to achieve?

BEN KNIGHT: Well, I don't know but I think it will be very interesting to see what happens on the streets of Cairo tomorrow morning local time which is some hours from now. Are there going to be more Coptic Christians out there protesting on the streets? I wouldn't be surprised. There was a lot of anger at the hospital that I was at.

I think you are going to find a very strong security presence but also, it will be I think, don't be surprised to see Egyptian Muslims out there marching alongside the Christians as well because that is certainly what we saw earlier in the week at the other protest.

There are a lot of people in this country who don't like the sectarian violence, don't like the sectarian divisions that are sort of bubbling to the surface at the moment. Look, it is impossible to tell but I can tell you that there are going to be a lot more police and military police on the streets tomorrow than there were today.

ELEANOR HALL: Ben Knight in Cairo, thank you. That's the ABC's Middle East correspondent Ben Knight speaking at about 2am his time.


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