CAIRO: Security forces fired tear gas at a prison truck Sunday in an attempt to free a police officer from rioting detainees, killing at least 36 suspects rounded up during clashes between supporters of ousted President Mohammad Morsi and police, officials said.
Elsewhere, a Cabinet meeting finished without any apparent decision on how to end the confrontation.
The killed detainees were part of a prison truck convoy of some 600 people heading to the Abu Zaabal prison north of Cairo, the officials told the Associated Press. Detainees in one of the trucks rioted Sunday night and managed to capture a police officer inside, the officials said.
Security forces fired tear gas into the truck in hopes of freeing the badly beaten officer, the officials said. The officials said those killed died from suffocating on the gas.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
However, the officials’ version of events contradicted reports about the incident carried by state media. The official website of Egyptian state television reported that the deaths took place after security forces clashed with militants near the prison and detainees came under fire while trying to escape. The official MENA state news agency also said the trucks came under attack from gunmen.
State media also said all those killed and the gunmen belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The officials who spoke to AP said some of the detainees belonged to the Brotherhood, while others didn’t.
The differences in the accounts could not be immediately reconciled Sunday night.
In a televised speech to military and police officers, army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi vowed to crack down on anyone using violence, but also struck an apparently inclusive note, telling Morsi’s supporters: “There is room for everyone in Egypt.”
The Brotherhood, under huge pressure since police stormed its protest camps in Cairo and killed hundreds of its supporters Wednesday, staged several more marches across the country to demand the reinstatement of Morsi, ousted by Sisi on July 3.
Seventy-nine people died and 549 were wounded Saturday in political violence around the country, MENA said, quoting the government.
That pushed the death toll since Wednesday to 830, including 70 police and soldiers.
It was not immediately clear how Saturday’s deaths had occurred. Previously only one person had been reported killed.
Morsi supporters Saturday exchanged fire with security forces who eventually cleared protesters from a Cairo mosque where they had sought refuge from clashes the day before.
The clampdown has earned the interim rulers criticism from Egypt’s major ally, the United States, and the European Union, but support from wealthy Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which fear the spread of Brotherhood ideology.
Before the Cabinet met, the liberal deputy prime minister, Ziad Bahaeddine, had floated a conciliatory proposal, advocating an end to a state of emergency declared last week, political participation for all parties and guarantees of human rights, including the right to free assembly.
But his initiative seemed at odds with the stance of Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, who suggested outlawing the 85-year-old Brotherhood, which would effectively force it underground.
“There will be no reconciliation with those whose hands that have been stained with blood and who turned weapons against the state and its institutions,” Beblawi said Saturday.
The Cabinet meeting lasted about four hours, but ended with no announcement of any major decision.
The capital’s frenetic streets, unusually empty in the past few days, were returning to normal, although the army kept several big squares closed and enforced a dusk-to-dawn curfew.At night, soldiers standing by armored personnel carriers man checkpoints and vigilantes inspect cars for weapons.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said Sunday it would ban groups of vigilantes who have set up self-styled “Popular Committees” in the capital’s streets.
Sisi said: “We will not stand idle in face of the destruction and torching of the country, the terrorizing of the people and the sending of a wrong image to the Western media that there is fighting in the streets.”
In calibrated rebukes to the army, the United States has delayed delivery of four F-16 fighters and scrapped a joint military exercise, but it has not halted its $1.55 billion a year in aid to Egypt, mostly to finance U.S.-made arms supplies.
But Sunday, a bipartisan series of U.S. lawmakers – several of them reversing earlier stances from before the crackdown – said on TV news programs that Washington should suspend the aid.
“For us to sit by and watch this happen is a violation of everything that we stood for,” said Republican Senator John McCain. “There are many areas where we could exercise influence over the generals, and we’re not doing any of it, and we’re not sticking with our values.”
Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy sought to pre-empt any Western attempt to use aid flows as a lever by saying that he would look at all such assistance to see “what aid is being used to pressure Egypt and whether this aid has good intentions and credibility.”
He told a news conference Egypt was not seeking to reshuffle its friendships, but would widen them to increase its options.
As part of a concerted push to drive home the state’s narrative of events, Fahmy’s aides distributed a pack of photos said to show Muslim Brotherhood members carrying firearms and wooden staves – and in one picture a black Al-Qaeda-type flag. The Brotherhood denies links to the militant network.
Officials have accused Western media of biased coverage of the unrest, saying they have ignored attacks on police and the destruction of churches blamed on Islamists.
“I tried to sympathize with the Brotherhood but could not,” said Hussein Ismail, 32, on holiday from his job in the Gulf, who took part in anti-Morsi protests late last year. “They defended the army when they attacked and killed Christian protesters in 2011. They slammed liberals, women and Copts when they asked for more freedoms, rights. Do you think those people really cared about democracy?”