CAIRO — Scores of people were killed and dozens more wounded Saturday in the worst violence in recent Egyptian history as police opened fire on supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
The number of dead was impossible to confirm, with Morsi supporters and the government offering widely different counts. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, claimed as many as 200 were dead, while the Ministry of Interior announced implausibly that police never fired a live round at protesters, despite all evidence to the contrary. Health ministry officials revised the death toll throughout the day, with it hitting 80 by early Sunday. At least 792 people were injured, the ministry said.
A brief visit to a field hospital — one of three treating the wounded — suggested those numbers could be conservative. A reporter counted 27 dead on the hospital’s floor, and as she left, three more bodies arrived, adding to a frantic and horrific scene. At least three of the dead had been shot in the head.
Doctors said the injuries could only have come from professional marksmen. Ebtesan Zain, a gynecologist, said she came to help her fellow doctors only to discover she was not needed; everyone she encountered was dead. “Those injuries had to be done by snipers. It couldn’t be anything else,” Zain said. “They were shooting directly in the head between the eyes and in the chest.”
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It was not immediately clear if the dead were all protesters or if residents who joined the fight against the march were among the dead.
The extent of the bloodshed pointed to a rapidly building confrontation between the country’s two camps, sharply divided over the coup that removed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, after widespread protests against his rule.
Saturday’s clashes were sparked when pro-Morsi protesters sought to expand their main Cairo sit-in camp by moving onto a nearby main boulevard, only to be confronted by police and armed civilians, reportedly residents of nearby neighborhoods. Police initially fired tear gas but in ensuing clashes, the protesters came under gunfire.
Officials from the Brotherhood and their allies decried what they called a new “massacre” against their side, only weeks after July 8 clashes with army troops in Cairo that left more than 50 Morsi supporters dead.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he spoke to Egyptian authorities, telling them it is “essential” they respect the right to peaceful protest. He called on all sides to enter a “meaningful political dialogue” to “help their country take a step back from the brink.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also asked security forces to “act with full respect for human rights” and demonstrators to “exercise restraint.”
Neither side has shown much taste for reconciliation. Islamists reject the new leadership and insist the only solution to the crisis is to put Morsi back in office. The interim leadership is pushing ahead with a fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by next year.
The military-backed authorities appear confident of public support for a tougher hand after millions turned out for nationwide rallies Friday called by army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a mandate against “terrorism and violence.”
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of police, took an uncompromising stance in a news conference after the violence. He accused the pro-Morsi side of provoking bloodshed to win sympathy.
“We didn’t go to them, they came to us — so they could use what happened for political gain,” he said. Ibrahim is originally a Morsi appointee, and his then-boss praised him for a tough hand after police killed dozens of anti-Morsi protesters in the city of Port Said earlier this year. “The Ministry of Interior never has and never will fire on any Egyptian,” he added, saying police only shot tear gas Saturday.
He also said there were plans to bring back “political security” offices dissolved under Morsi. Such offices monitored groups like the Brotherhood, which had been outlawed for decades.
Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref said that “exposes” that the government of Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is seeking to reverse the 2011 uprising that toppled him and led to Morsi’s election.
Interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who backed the military’s ouster of Morsi, raised one of the few notes of criticism of the new bloodshed. “I highly condemn the excessive use of force and the fall of victims,” he wrote in a tweet, though he did not place blame. He added that he is “working very hard and in all directions to end this confrontation in a peaceful manner.”
Since Morsi’s July 3 ouster, at least 200 people and troops have been killed, largely Morsi supporters and Islamists who reject an Egypt again governed by the military.
Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since his ouster. On Friday, a judge said Morsi would be held for 15 more days as officials investigate him for murder and espionage for allegedly conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas to orchestrate his 2011 prison break, the first time the government had offered a legal justification for his detention.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.