CAIRO (AP) - Egyptian police in riot gear swept in with armored vehicles and bulldozers Wednesday to clear two sprawling encampments of supporters of the country's ousted Islamist president in Cairo, showering protesters with tear gas as the sound of gunfire rang out. At least 15 people were killed.
Smoke clogged the sky and fires smoldered on the streets, which were lined with charred poles and tarps after several tents were burned. The smaller camp was cleared relatively quickly, but clashes were ongoing at the main site near a mosque that has served as the epicenter of the pro-Morsi campaign.
The assault came after days of warnings by the military-backed interim administration that replaced President Mohammed Morsi after he was ousted in a July 3 coup. The two sit-in camps at two major intersections on opposite sides of the Egyptian capital began in late June to show support for Morsi. Aftre the coup, protesters there have demanded his reinstatement.
Clashes also broke out elsewhere in Cairo and other provinces across the country, with police stations, government buildings and churches attacked or set ablaze.
The Egyptian Central Bank instructed commercial banks to close branches in areas affected by the chaos, a sign of alarm that the violence could spiral out of control. The Ministry of Antiquities also ordered the site of the Giza Pyramids closed to visitors along with the Egyptian museum in the heart of the Egyptian capital. The closures were a precaution effective only for Wednesday, it said.
The turmoil was the latest chapter a bitter standoff between Morsi's supporters led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership that has assumed the helm of the Arab world's most populous country. The military ousted Morsi after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for him to step down, accusing him of giving the Brotherhood undue influence and failing to implement vital reforms or bolster the ailing economy.
The coup provoked similar protests by Morsi's backers after he and other Brotherhood leaders were detained as divisions have deepened, dealing a major blow to hopes of a return to stability after the 2011 revolution that led to the ouster of autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
The deposed president has been held at an undisclosed location. Other Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence or conspiring in the killing of protesters.
"The world cannot sit back and watch while innocent men, women and children are being indiscriminately slaughtered. The world must stand up to the military junta's crime before it is too late," said a statement by the Brotherhood's media office in London emailed to the AP in Cairo.
The smaller of the two camps was cleared of protesters by late morning, with most of them taking refuge in the nearby Orman botanical gardens on the campus of Cairo University and the zoo.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said security forces were chasing the protesters in the zoo. At one point, a dozen protesters, mostly men with beards wearing traditional Islamist garb, were seen handcuffed and sitting on a sidewalk under guard outside the university campus. The private ONTV network showed firearms and rounds of ammunition allegedly seized from protesters there.
Security forces later stormed the larger camp in the Cairo district of Nasr City and were closing in on the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque that has served as the epicenter of pro-Morsi campaign. Several wanted Brotherhood leaders were believed to be hiding inside the mosque.
The pro-Morsi Anti-Coup alliance claimed that security forces used live ammunition, but the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said its forces only used tear gas and that they came under fire from the camp.
The Interior Ministry statement also warned that forces would deal firmly with protesters who were acting "irresponsibly," suggesting that it would respond in kind if its men are fired upon. It said it would guarantee safe passage to all who want to leave the Nasr City site but would arrest those wanted for questioning by prosecutors.
Army troops did not take part in the two Cairo operations, but provided security at the locations. Police and army helicopters hovered over both sites as plumes of smoke rose over the city skyline hours after the police launched the simultaneous actions shortly after 7 a.m. (0500 GMT).
At least five policemen were confirmed to have died in the morning crackdown, while the Health Ministry said at least 10 protesters were killed and nearly 100 injured in the two camps. Three more people were killed in clashes in Minya province south of Cairo.
A security official said a total of 200 protesters were arrested at both sites on Wednesday. Several detained men could be seen walking with their hands up as they were led away by black-clad policemen.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm claimed that more than 500 protesters were killed and some 9,000 wounded in the two camps, but those figures could not be confirmed and nothing in the footage from AP or local TV networks that suggests such a high death toll.
Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader, put the death toll at more than 300 and called on the police and army troops to mutiny against their commanders. He also urged Egyptians to take to the streets to show their disapproval of Wednesday's raids.
"Oh, Egyptian people, your brothers are in the square ... Are you going to remain silent until the genocide is completed?" said el-Beltagy, who is wanted by authorities to answer allegations of inciting violence.
Police also fired tear gas elsewhere in Cairo to disperse Morsi supporters who wanted to join the Nasr City camp after it came under attack. State TV also reported that a police captain had been abducted by pro-Morsi protesters in the area, but there was no official statement about that.
Islam Tawfiq, a Brotherhood member at the Nasr City sit-in, said that the camp's medical center was filled with dead bodies and that the injured included children.
"No one can leave and those who do are either arrested or beaten up," he told the AP.
Security officials said train services between the north and south of the country have been suspended in a bid to prevent Morsi supporters from traveling from other provinces to Cairo to reinforce fellow Islamists. Clashes erupted on two major roads in Cairo's upscale Mohandiseen district when pro-Morsi protesters opened fire on passing cars and pedestrians. Police used tear gas top chase them away.
The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to media.
Churches belonging to Egypt's minority Coptic Christians were torched in three southern provinces - Minya, Assiut and Sohag. In the city of Bani Suef south of Cairo, protesters set three police cars on fire. Farther south in the Islamist stronghold of Assiut, police used tear gas to disperse thousands of Morsi supporters gathered in the city center.
Other clashes broke out between Morsi supporters and security forces in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, the Nile Delta provinces of Beheira, Sharqiya and Gharbiyah and in the oasis region of Fayoum southwest of Cairo.
Supporters of the Islamist president want him reinstated and are boycotting the military-sponsored political process, which includes amending the Islamist-backed constitution adopted last year and holding parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.
At least 250 people have died in previous clashes following the coup.
Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, had just completed one year in office when he was toppled. He has largely been held incommunicado but was visited by the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and an African delegation. Ashton reported that he was well and had access to television and newspapers.
Several bids by the United States, the European Union and Gulf Arab states to reconcile the two sides in Egypt in an inclusive political process have failed, with the Brotherhood insisting that Morsi must first be freed along with several of the group's leaders who have been detained in connection with incitement of violence.
The trial of the Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, and his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater on charges of conspiring to kill protesters is due to start later this month. Badie is on the run, but el-Shater is in detention. Four others are standing trial with them on the same charges.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)