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Two dead, nearly 300 wounded in Cairo clashes

By Samer al-Atrush

CAIRO (AFP) - At least two people were killed on Friday in fierce clashes between anti-military protesters and soldiers in Cairo and nearly 300 others wounded, hospital officials and medics said.

Egypt's military rulers imposed an overnight curfew around the defence ministry in central Cairo where the skirmishes occurred and the military prosecution announced that 170 people were arrested.

The clashes erupted just three weeks ahead Egypt's first post-revolution presidential election as protesters took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria to denounce the country's military rulers.

Officials at the Al-Zahra University hospital said they received two people who died in the skirmishes outside the defence ministry. A frontline medic group said the two died of gunshot wounds.

The health ministry reported one death and said he was a conscript soldier.

At least 296 people were also hurt in the clashes, the health ministry said in a statement, including 131 treated in hospital.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that has ruled Egypt since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in last year's revolt also warned against violating the curfew.

"A curfew has been imposed in the Abbassiya square, around the defence ministry and the surrounding streets," said SCAF member General Mukhtar al-Mulla in a television address.

The curfew will be in place from 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) until 7:00 am (0500 GMT) on Saturday morning, Mulla said, warning that the armed forces will "decisively confront" any attempt to violate the curfew.

"All legal measures will be taken against those involved in the Abbasiya events, or those inciting them," Mulla said.

The army arrested 170 people outside the defence ministry, military prosecution sources said.

Earlier a military source said 40 people were arrested, describing them as "thugs."

Military police charged the protesters, chasing them down side streets near the ministry on foot and in military vehicles, firing birdshot and assault rifles into the air amid chaotic scenes, an AFP correspondent reported.

The clashes began when some protesters threw rocks at the military police, prompting troops to respond with water cannon and later tear gas.

A blanket of thick smoke engulfed Abbassiya square near the defence ministry, days after another round of deadly clashes in the area.

Bleeding protesters were ferried away by motorbike and ambulances rushed to the scene, an AFP reporter said. State television showed several soldiers wounded.

Military police, their shields in one hand, picked up rocks and hurled them back at protesters, who used metal sheets from construction sites to protect themselves.

A Belgian photographer with the English-language publication the Egypt Independent was arrested, a colleague, Nevine El Shabrawi, told AFP.

The Al-Jazeera Misr satellite station said soldiers arrested a television crew from the January 25 channel, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Several thousand secular and Islamist protesters had gathered in Abbassiya, some marching there from Cairo's Tahrir Square, to denounce the ruling military council.

The protest comes ahead of the landmark presidential polls amid fears by many Egyptians that the military rulers will renege on a pledge to hand power to civilian rule after the election and that the vote will be rigged.

"We are here to end SCAF rule. We don't trust them. SCAF is following Mubarak's example, and we want to protect the revolution," said Mohammed Badawi from Ismailiya, a member of the Coalition of Revolution Youth.

Another protester from the Nile Delta city of Mansura, Ahmed Gamal, said he feared the election will be "forged."

Friday's protest comes two days after deadly clashes in the Abbassiya neighbourhood which the health ministry said left at least nine people dead, though field medics say more died.

On Wednesday, unknown attackers stormed a sit-in near the defence ministry by supporters of Salafist politician Hazem Abu Ismail, who was recently disqualified from the presidential race.

Other candidates include former Arab League chief Amr Mussa and Mubarak's last premier Ahmed Shafiq.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood has fielded the head of its political arm Mohammed Mursi whose main Islamist rival is Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member.

Around 2,000 protesters also gathered in central Alexandria on Friday, an AFP photographer said.

On Thursday, the SCAF, vowed that the presidential election will be fair and moved to assure the public it will hand over power on schedule.

"We are committed to fair elections 100 percent. We don't have any candidates," said council member Major General Mohammed al-Assar.

But he also warned that "if anyone approaches (the defence ministry) they should hold themselves responsible."

The presidential election is scheduled for May 23 and 24 with a run-off for June 16 and 17 if there is no outright winner.

The military vowed it would transfer power to civilian rule before the end of June, or by May if there is a clear winner in the first round.

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