13 dead in clashes with Mubarak supporters; Prime Minister apologises for attack on peaceful demonstrators

After going on the offensive on Wednesday, supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beat a retreat by Thursday evening in the face of a spirited rearguard action from pro-democracy activists.

As night fell over Cairo, the stone-pelting loyalists of the President, widely suspected by the opposition to be undercover state security operatives, were forced further away from the Tahrir Square, epicentre of the Egyptian uprising for an immediate end to Mr. Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship.

Throughout the day, supporters and opponents of the President battled for control over the highway passes that overlook the square. By evening, the pro-democracy campaigners established firm control over the bridges. Braving occasional rounds of gunfire, the anti-Mubarak camp, acquiring the high ground, managed to push down its rivals to the Nile corniche, from where they retreated past the state television building. By evening, the battle for the Tahrir Square had turned into a larger clash for control over downtown Cairo.

The opposition has yet again called for another day of organised protests on Friday, describing it as the “day of departure” for the Mubarak presidency. Unlike the previous day, when the pro-Mubarak supporters mounted medieval-era charge on horses and camels to break up the opposition, the army kept the two sides well apart on Thursday.

But with the cordon that the pro-Mubarak camp had thrown round lanes leading to the square lifted, the pro-democracy activists could bring in reinforcements, swelling considerably their otherwise diminishing ranks.

Pushed on the defensive by the opposition's resilience and mounting international condemnations, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq has apologised for the attacks on the peaceful protesters. The death toll in Wednesday's clashes has risen to 13.

Saying the assailants had committed a “fatal error,” Mr. Shafiq has ordered a probe. “There is no excuse whatsoever to attack peaceful protesters, and that is why I am apologising,” the private television channel al-Hayat reported. “When investigations reveal who is behind this crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise, they will be held accountable and will be punished for what they did.”

Meanwhile, with pressure mounting, Mr. Mubarak's recently appointed Cabinet appeared to adopt a more populist tone on Thursday. The former Interior Minster, Habib Eladly, and four businessmen have been banned from leaving Egypt, Al Jazeera television reported. The Attorney-General has also been asked to freeze the accounts of former Ministers and businessmen.

Later in the evening, the newly appointed Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, told state television that he would welcome a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, which has so far been officially banned. “We invited the Muslim Brotherhood... but they are hesitant... this is a very important opportunity that they should not lose,” he said. The Vice-President also promised an end to nepotism, saying Mr. Mubarak's son would not run for the presidency.

Earlier, local media reported that the National Association for Change, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and pro-democracy reformer, has rejected any dialogue with Mr. Mubarak's government until the President steps down. The liberal Wafd party has also declined talks so far.

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