Egyptian security forces escort an Islamist supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood out of the al-Fatah mosque Saturday.
(Photo: Hussein Tallal, AP)
CAIRO - Egyptian security forces stormed a Cairo mosque Saturday after shooting at armed men firing down from a minaret, rounding up hundreds of supporters of the country's ousted president who hid there overnight after violent clashes killed 173 people.
Security officials said officers raided the Ramses Square mosque out of fears the Muslim Brotherhood again planned to set up a sit-in similar to those broken up Wednesday in assaults that killed hundreds of people. The Egyptian government meanwhile announced it had begun deliberations on whether to ban the Brotherhood, a long-outlawed organization that swept to power in the country's first democratic elections a year ago.
The assault on the al-Fath Mosque began overnight Friday, as pro-Morsi protesters and armed men fled into worship center to avoid angry vigilantes and arrest. They piled furniture in the mosque's entrance to block authorities and enraged anti-Morsi protesters from reaching them.
The mosque earlier served as a field hospital and an open-air morgue as a Brotherhood-called day of protests descended into violence. By daybreak Saturday, security forces and armored personnel carriers surrounded the mosque and it appeared that military-led negotiations might defuse the standoff.
Then gunmen took over a mosque minaret and opened fire on the security forces below, the state-run MENA news agency said. The crowd around the mosque panicked as soldiers opened fire with assault rifles, the chaos broadcast live on local television channels.
Several security officials told The Associated Press that ending the standoff at the mosque was essential after receiving information that the group planned to turn it into a new sit-in protest camp. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The day after marches in Cairo devolved into the fiercest street battles that the capital has seen in more than two years, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters were defying a state of emergency with new protests. Egyptian government spokesman Sherif Shawki said Saturday that 1,330 people were injured in the fighting Friday.
Meanwhile, Egyptian security officials say they have arrested the brother of al-Qaeda's top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, NBC News and the Associated Press reported. Mohammed al-Zawahri, leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafist group who was allied with Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, was detained at a checkpoint in Giza, the AP reported.
On Friday evening, an eerie calm had fallen over the city after a day marked by violent clashes. Near the site of one set of clashes that erupted earlier in the day, plainclothes and uniformed police patrolled the streets along with other packs of security forces positioned across the capital. They stopped and questioned every passing vehicle, which were few and far between.
"It's not safe here," a plainclothes policeman warned, not giving his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Earlier Friday, protesters poured out of mosques after traditional midday prayers in response to the Brotherhood's call for a "Friday of Anger" against Morsi's July ouster and the deadly violence during a police operation to evict Morsi supporters from protest camps. As the dust from Friday's violence cleared, the Muslim Brotherhood called for a week of additional protests.
Scenes of chaos tore through the capital as sounds of gunfire crackled through the air, while protesters vowed to keep up their demonstrations against Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who led the July 3 overthrow of former president Morsi.
At least 638 were killed nationwide Wednesday including 43 police, Egypt's Health Ministry said. Most died in violence at two main protest sites positioned on opposite sides of the capital. With bulldozers, tear gas and live ammunition, security forces tore through the sit-ins, where protesters gathered for six weeks demanding Morsi's reinstatement.
The government defended its position, saying it gave protesters a chance to leave and was "keen to adopt a gradual plan to avoid bloodshed and falling of victims."
Contributing: The Associated Press; Gary Strauss in McLean, Va.