Egypt army set to clear protesters after deadly clashes
CAIRO, Egypt - Egypt's army prepared to clear demonstrators from outside President Mohamed Morsi's palace Thursday and ban protests there, after Morsi supporters and opponents clashed overnight in the deadliest violence since his election.
"The Republican Guard has decided to clear the area around the presidential palace at 1500 local time (1300 GMT) and ban protests around institutions belonging to the presidency," a presidential statement said.
Morsi was expected to deliver a televised address to the nation after 5 people were killed in the clashes pitting Islamists against an opposition that has escalated protests since he assumed extensive powers on November 22.
Egypt's top Islamic body called on him to suspend the decree and demanded an unconditional dialogue between the president and his opponents.
Morsi should "suspend the latest decree and stop using it," the Al-Azhar institution said in a statement.
The street battles outside the Itihadiya palace in northern Cairo also wounded 644 people, many from birdshot, the health ministry reported.
By Thursday morning, the Republican Guard, the division tasked with protecting the presidency, deployed at least 10 tanks and troops outside the palace.
An AFP correspondent said supporters of Morsi who had camped outside the palace began packing up their belongings after the military ultimatum.
Republican Guard chief General Mohammed Zaki said earlier the tanks were deployed to separate warring protesters, and pledged that the military "will not be an instrument of oppression."
The opposition has said it would organize further marches to the palace, where Morsi, who often spends the night at his old home in another Cairo suburb, arrived early on Thursday.
Four Morsi advisers have resigned over the crisis, official news agency MENA reported, and the head of state television has also quit in protest, the independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm reported on its website.
A senior presidential aide told AFP Morsi was expected to make a speech later in the day to reach out to the opposition. No time was announced for the address.
Opposition won’t stand down
The stage was set for Wednesday's violence when Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement announced a march to the palace where opposition protesters were holding a sit-in a day after tens of thousands surrounded the sprawling complex.
Protesters fired guns and threw firebombs and rocks at each other as their simmering stand-off over Morsi's expanded powers and a controversial draft constitution turned violent.
Bloodied protesters were carried away as gunshots rang out and rival demonstrators torched cars and set off firecrackers near the palace, where Morsi opponents had put up tents before his supporters drove them away.
Riot police were eventually sent in, but clashes still took place in side streets near the presidential compound.
The opposition says it will not stand down until Morsi discards his new powers, which allow him to take decisions uncontested by the courts, and cancels a snap December 15 referendum on the new constitution opposed by liberals and Christians.
Early on Thursday, intermittent gunshots rang out amid sporadic violence, an AFP correspondent said, before the tanks deployed.
The overnight violence also spread beyond Cairo, with protesters torching Muslim Brotherhood offices in the Mediterranean port city of Ismailiya and in Suez, witnesses said.
The Brotherhood urged protesters on both sides to withdraw, as did Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.
‘Civil war to burn us’
"It's a civil war that will burn all of us," said Ahmed Fahmy, 27, as clashes raged behind him.
The United States called for an open and "democratic dialogue" in Egypt.
"The upheaval we are seeing... indicates that dialogue is urgently needed. It needs to be two-way," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in comments echoed by Britain and the European Union.
Despite the protests, Vice President Mahmud Mekki said a referendum on the charter "will go ahead on time" on December 15.
He said the opposition would be allowed to put any objections to articles in the draft constitution in writing, to be discussed by a parliament yet to be elected.
Prominent opposition leader and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Morsi bore "full responsibility" for the violence.
He said the opposition was ready for dialogue but would use "any means necessary" to scupper the charter, stressing, however, that these would be peaceful. – Agence France-Presse