Tens of Thousands march in Egypt demanding ouster of Mubarak


Cairo, Feb 1 (PTI) Tens of thousands of Egyptians pouredonto the streets of Cairo today for an unprecedented rallyseeking ouster of Hosni Mubarak, hours after the powerfulmilitary showed signs of distancing itself from the besiegedPresident vowing that it would not fire on the protesters.

In a desperate bid to cling to power, 82-year-old Mubarakoffered to open "immediate talks" with opposition groups.

"President Hosni Mubarak has tasked me with openingimmediate talks with the political forces to begin a dialoguearound all the issues concerning constitutional andlegislative reforms," newly-appointed Vice President OmarSuleiman said on state television.

Suleiman also said the government would move to "dealas soon as possible with the priorities of fightingunemployment, poverty, corruption and reach the requiredbalance between wages and prices."

Notwithstanding the offer, protesters, includingstudents, teachers, farmers and women in headscarves, filledthe Tahrir (Liberation) Square -- the hub of demonstrationsagainst Mubarak''s 30-year rule in the heart of Cairo -- inresponse to a call for a million people to rally against theregime.

Two effigies of Mubarak dangled from traffic signals atthe Square as protesters demanded that the "murderous"President should be put on trial.

Amid heavy presence of military and armoured vehicles onthe streets in downtown Cairo, protesters waved placardsreading ''down with Mubarak'' and ''Mubarak''s game is over'' inthe largest demonstration yet in the 8-day uprising that hasclaimed over 150 lives.

However, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, citingunconfirmed reports, said in Geneva that as many as 300 peoplemay have been killed in the revolt.

Undeterred by the large number of gun-tottingsecuritymen, the protesters, in a "festival-like" atmosphere,sang and chanted slogans against Mubarak, ''Al-Jazeera''reported.

Identity cards of protesters were scrutinised by thearmy personnel before letting them into the Square, where thedemonstrators offered ''namaz''.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters alsoconverged in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria,despite train services being cancelled and main roads closedby authorities in a bid to quell the protests.

Sensing strong public sentiments, the military made itclear that it would not crush the mass anti-governmentprotests and said the protesters'' demands were "legitimate," asign that its support to Mubarak may be fading. (More) PTIZH KIM VMN

"To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people ... have notand will not use force against the Egyptian people," themilitary said in a statement on state TV.

"Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy ofyour demands and are keen to assume their responsibility inprotecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedomof expression through peaceful means is guaranteed toeverybody," it said.

Facing the first serious challenge to his rule, Mubarakhad been hoping for the military backing to stem the tideagainst him.

The President last night sacked his much-hated InteriorMinister in a revamped Cabinet and appointed a newintelligence chief to mollify opposition groups, but theprotesters remained unmoved and stated that they would acceptnothing less than his departure.

Mubarak appointed top general Murad Mowafi, aformer north Sinai governor, as the new intelligence chief.

Concerned over the fast-moving events in Egypt, the USsent a diplomatic troubleshooter with close ties to theArab nation on a mission to Cairo to meet President Mubarakand other senior officials.

Frank G Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, flew inhere yesterday as questions were raised whether the US wasusing him as an emissary to persuade Mubarak to step down.

Stepping up their campaign, a coalition of oppositiongroups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, gavePresident Mubarak a Friday ultimatum to quit.

They rejected the new Cabinet dominated by the regimeveterans, and called for continued protests to ensure the fallof the government.

Separately, Wafd, one of Egypt''s oldest parties, saidthat a number of opposition groups have agreed to form "anational front" to deal with the volatile situation whileinsisting that Mubarak "has lost legitimacy," Al-Jazeerareported.

The state-owned national carrier EgyptAir said it wascancelling all domestic and international flights from 3 pm to8 am local time until further notice, coinciding with a nightcurfew in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, media reports said.

People were also stocking up supplies in panic, witnessessaid.

"There are very few rations available in the stores. Theyare running out of basic supplies, like eggs, cheese and meat.

Deliveries have not been coming for days," a witness said. PTIZH KIM VMN

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