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Hundreds killed in Egypt clashes

Cairo is a war zone after Egyptian authorities used violent force to break up Muslim Brotherhood protest camps. Ruth Pollard reports from Cairo. Warning: graphic images.

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Nasr City, Cairo: Outside, the streets were in chaos, the rapid crack of gunshots and the burning sting of tear gas filled the air as Egypt's security forces opened fire on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters in an extended, bloody confrontation.

"Does this look like democracy to you?" Mohamed Kamel asked as he treated scores of wounded in a field hospital 

Inside, the scenes were heartbreaking. Bodies lay side-by-side on the carpeted floor of the Al-Salam Mosque in Nasr City, their devastated relatives occasionally lifting the sheet covering their loved one's face, still not really believing they could possibly be dead.

A police vehicle is pushed off of the 6th of October bridge by protesters.

A police vehicle is pushed off of the 6th of October bridge by protesters. Photo: AP

“He was just 37 years old,” Shimaa Abdullah said of her husband, Mahmoud Mohamed. “He was a good man, a science teacher, who went to help the injured protesters.”

Tears streamed down her face as she said quietly: “I have three children, what will I tell them?”

At least 421 people were killed and more than 3000 have been injured so far, according to updated information from Egypt's health ministry, in the military operation to clear the thousands-strong protest camps in Nasr City and Giza that human rights groups have described as excessively violent. There are fears the toll will climb much higher as the chaos continued into the night.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi flee from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police during clashes in Cairo.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi flee from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police during clashes in Cairo. Photo: Reuters

An armoured police vehicle was pushed off a bridge by protesters in Cairo.

The van plunged off the 6th October Bridge before demonstrators attacked the wreckage. It is not known how many people were on board and how many people survived the fall, but bloodied men were seen lying around the van moments afterwards. Unconfirmed reports on Twitter claimed five were dead.

The dramatic pictures show the van being ambushed by dozens of people before crashing through a protective fence on the bridge. It then falls upside down and then rolls onto its roof as it lands. Blood can then be seen on the ground as nearby police officers pull injured men out of the crushed vehicle.

The Muslim Brotherhood say as many as 2000 of its supporters died in the security operation to clear the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and al-Nahda Square in Giza.

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi run from Egyptian security forces firing towards them during clashes in Cairo's Nasr City.

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi run from Egyptian security forces firing towards them during clashes in Cairo's Nasr City. Photo: AP

As the crisis across the country deepened, the military-backed interim government declared a month-long state of emergency with a nightly curfew in Cairo and in 14 of Egypt's 27 provinces including Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez.

Violent protests spread across Egypt into Alexandria, Minya, Assuit and Suez, with street battles breaking out between pro- and anti-Brotherhood supporters.

At least three churches have been burned by pro-Mursi groups in retaliatory attacks against the country's Coptic Christian community in Minya, Sohag and Dilga, with reports indicating dozens had died in Upper Egypt alone.

A supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Mursi shows spent ammunition during clashes with security forces near the largest sit-in by his supporters in Nasr City.

A supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Mursi shows spent ammunition during clashes with security forces near the largest sit-in by his supporters in Nasr City. Photo: AP

In Nasr City the wail of ambulance sirens was constant and cars screeched through the choked streets bringing desperately needed medical supplies to the field hospitals.

Their journey was often blocked by rows of armoured personnel carriers manned by hundreds of soldiers, as well as rows of black-clad riot police, some with balaclavas pulled over their faces.

Radiologist Mohamed Kamel was one of the doctors working at the Al-Salam Mosque field hospital, and he angrily turned to survey the scenes of bedlam around him as people lay bleeding on the floor and the injured continued to arrive at alarmingly short intervals.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi clash with security forces.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi clash with security forces. Photo: AP

“Does this look like democracy to you?” he asked. “I have treated people today whose bodies have been totally covered with injuries from birdshot – in their eyes, their heads, necks, stomachs – all over. They have had gunshot wounds, they have been shot by snipers from above, and it is not slowing down, it's speeding up.”

Helicopters hovered in the sky and black smoked billowed from burning tyres set alight by protesters who are calling for the reinstatement of Mohamed Mursi. The former president was deposed on July 3 when the military stepped in following massive street demonstrations against his short-lived government.

Along the main thoroughfare of the 6th of October Bridge cars had been set alight and were left skewed and burning by angry pro-Mursi protesters, who ran along the road carrying large rocks and threatening the few cars attempting to pass.

Shot dead: Sky News television cameraman Mick Deane.

Shot dead: Sky News television cameraman Mick Deane. Photo: Reuters

But by late afternoon the streets in most of Cairo were all but deserted, with shops shuttered and the roads free of the traffic that usually chokes the Egyptian capital.

By 6pm, nearly 12 hours after the military operation began, it appeared the thousands of protesters left inside the Rabaa camp had begun to leave under police escort, on foot and in cars carrying more dead and wounded.

Journalists killed

Supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi capture an Egyptian security forces vehicle at the Ministry of Finance in Cairo, Egypt. Click for more photos

Egypt protest crackdown

Supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi capture an Egyptian security forces vehicle at the Ministry of Finance in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: AP/Mohsen Nabil

Two journalists died covering Wednesday's clashes, including 61-year-old Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, who was shot and killed in the military operation at Rabaa.

And Gulf News reporter Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, 26, was also shot dead, her news organisation confirmed.

In the wake of a day of horrific violence, Egypt's high-profile deputy interim prime minister Mohamed ElBaradai announced his resignation from the government.

"It has become too difficult to continue bearing responsibility for decisions I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear," ElBaradei said in a letter to the interim president seen by the Agence-France Press news agency.

"Unfortunately those who gain from what happened today are those who call for violence and terror, the extremist groups.”

Interim government

The army's actions – long threatened – followed the failure of international mediators to bring an end to the political crisis that has gripped Egypt since the military-backed government took control.

Protesters inside the two camps were already on high alert following the deaths of 74 pro-Mursi supporters killed by security forces on July 27 and a further 51 killed in similar circumstances outside the Republican Guard headquarters on July 8. They were just 125 of the 300 people who died in violent attacks and street clashes since the overthrow of Mursi on July 3.

There were reports overnight that senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Mohamed El-Beltagi, Essam el-Erian and Safwat Hegazy had been arrested during Wednesday's crackdown. Mr Beltagi's 17-year-old daughter Asmaa was shot dead in the military operation.

The interim government issued a statement praising security forces for showing the “utmost degree of self-restraint”, reflected in low casualties compared to the number of people “and the volume of weapons and violence directed against the security forces”.

The military's move to break up the pro-Mursi protest camps further dampened hopes of any chance of national reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian political parties.

It also deepened the fears held by many Egyptians that the military is assuming too much power in a country that has just emerged from the decades-long oppressive rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Under the “road map” released after Dr Mursi's overthrow, the interim government is to redraft the country's constitution and hold new elections in the next six-to-nine months.

Australia's response

On Thursday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr told ABC radio  the events in Egypt were a "tragic loss of life which Australia unreservedly condemns".

He also described it as a "terrible setback" to what Australia had hoped would be a move towards democracy in the country.

Senator Carr said further detail was needed before describing the loss of life as a "massacre".

"What we can say is Egypt has a poorly trained security apparatus, which does not give one confidence that the requisite level of restraint has been exercised."

The Department of Foreign Affairs' travel advice is set at "reconsider your need to travel" - the third highest level out of four.

Senator Carr said he would be talking to DFAT on Thursday morning about strengthening the advice and would be recommending formally that Australians in the country should "find an opportunity to leave". 

International reaction

The international community has called on the government and the military to show restraint, with the US, the UN and the EU condemning the deaths.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the violence. In a stern warning to Egypt's leaders, Mr Kerry said the escalating violence throughout the country had dealt a "serious blow" to political reconciliation efforts between the military-backed interim government and supporters of Dr Mursi.

"This is a pivotal moment for all Egyptians," Mr Kerry said. "The path toward violence leads only to greater instability, economic disaster and suffering."

Still, Obama administration officials signalled no change in US policy toward Egypt or clear consequences for the mounting violence.

The US has avoided declaring Dr Mursi's ouster a coup, a move that would force the administration to suspend $US1.3 billion in annual military aid to the strategically important nation, and officials said they continued to believe that step is not the America's interests.

with Judith Ireland, AP

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