Egypt protests continue; ElBaradei tells Mubarak to step down

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Mohamed ElBaradei
Cairo, Jan 31: Calling for a general strike, tens of thousands of protesters today (Jan 31) stepped up their campaign for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, even as the focus shifted on the influential army for a smooth transition of power.

Pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate Mohammad ElBaradei, who defied house arrest to join the protesters at the Tahrir Square last night, asked the embattled president to "step down today itself."

"It is loud and clear from everybody in Egypt that Mubarak has to leave today," ElBaradei said in an interview aired on CNN.

"He needs to leave today... to be followed by a smooth transition (to) a national unity government to be followed by all the measures set in place for a free and fair election."

Meanwhile, the show of defiance continued as protesters assembled in central Cairo and called for a general strike today. They vowed to continue the protest until the fall of Mubarak''s regime, even as the death toll in the last six days of violence crossed 150.

"The army has to choose between Egypt and Mubarak," said a banner in Tahrir Square.

Egyptian judges and scholars from world''s prestigious Islamic seminary Al-Azhar joined mass protests, calling for an to Mubarak''s 30-year rule.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has sought restraint and favoured "concrete steps" aimed at advancing political reforms in Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday called for an "orderly transition" to democracy in Egypt, saying the legitimate grievances of the people will have to be addressed.

In a desperate move to cling to power, Mubarak, 82, yesterday visited the military headquarters and met the newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman and top commanders after which more troops and armoured vehicles moved on to the streets.

The Army increased its presence on the streets of the capital, and blocked roads with tanks and flew in fighter jets over the city after lootings and arson were witnessed. However, the protests continued unabated and the military did not make any move to target or disperse thousands of protesters at the Tahrir Square, which has now become a symbol of the mass uprising, and a centre where demonstrators have been converging defying night curfews.

Many armymen had earlier doffed uniforms to join the uprising against Mubarak. All eyes are now on the powerful military which is widely believed to have a pivotal role to play in seeing a smooth transition of power.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel put the death toll at 150 and said 4,000 people had been injured since protests began, while some other reports said over 100 had been killed.

ElBaradei also criticised the American policy and asked the US to "stop the life support" to the dictator while asking Mubarak to step down. He also said that the Muslim Brotherhood will have to be part of any future government and also indicated that he will reach out to the Army.

A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood earlier said Opposition forces have agreed to support ElBaradei to negotiate with the government, Al Arabiya TV reported.

Meanwhile, many countries, including India, the US, Australia, Britain and China, have started evacuating their citizens from Egypt. A special Air India aircraft flew in here to ferry over 300 Indians to Mumbai, Indian Ambassador R Swaminathan said. They will reach Mumbai on Monday, he said.

As protests raged, Cairo and other cities faced growing lawlessness with gangs of armed men helping free thousands of prisoners and looters rampaging malls, banks and jewellery stores. Taking advantage of the fluid situation, armed gangs fired at guards in four prisons, including in Alexandria and Aswan, and helped thousands of inmates to flee.

An estimated 5,000 inmates, including arrested Muslim Brotherhood members, broke free from a jail in El Fayoum, south of Cairo, after a senior police officer was killed, media reports said.

Looting and arson continued through the night as security personnel disappeared from the trouble spots. To protect their property from looters, residents of the city set up committees armed with guns, clubs and knives.

Authorities also halted al-Jazeera''s broadcasts via an Egyptian satellite. The channel was still reporting on the events from Egypt when the announcement was made.

There was however no let down in protests as thousands defied curfew for the second night last night, with chants of "Down, down Mubarak" and "Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits" renting the air. Some of the protestors accused Mubarak and newly appointed VP Suleiman of being "agents of the Americans".

The fighter jets and army helicopters swooped low over the capital passing over the thousands of protestors waving flags and banners yesterday. In central Cairo, an army officer was carried on the shoulders of cheering protestors. Meanwhile, widely respected Arab Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi accused Mubarak of having turned "blind, deaf and dumb" in the face of massive protests and asked him to step down.

"President Mubarak ... I advise you to depart from Egypt ... There is no other solution to this problem but for Mubarak to go," Qaradawi said.

PTI

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