Army separates Egypt''s warring groups ahead of Friday showdown

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Rania

Cairo, Feb 3 (PTI) With just hours left for Friday''sshowdown between protesters and the government in Egypt, armytoday rolled out tanks and positioned soldiers to separatewarring pro-and anti-Hosni Mubarak demonstrators, who clashedleaving seven people dead and 700 injured in fresh violence.

Shortly after automatic gunfire hit the anti-governmentprotesters at the historic Tahrir Square killing seven people,including three on the spot, tanks and armoured cars ferriedrifle-wielding soldiers to line up between the clashinggroups.

The pre-dawn firing apparently by Mubarak''s supportersappeared to be orchestrated to evict thousands of oppositionsupporters from the Square ahead of a massive rally tomorrow,also the day when the opposition deadline to the embattledPresident, who has been in power since 1981, to quit expires.

As opposing groups battled exchanging gunfire and peltedrocks and stones which also left scores of international mediapersons injured triggering strong condemnation from the US andWestern nations, new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologisedfor the events saying there will be an investigation into theviolence.

"This is a fatal error," Shafiq told the privately-ownedal-Hayat television. "When investigations reveal who is behindthis crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise they willbe held accountable and will be punished for what they did."

"There is no excuse whatsoever to attack peacefulprotesters, and that is why I am apologising," he said, urgingthe protesters "to go home to help end this crisis".

His remarks came as the nation''s Cabinet denied that itplayed any role in the attacks against the pro-democracydemonstrators.

Shafiq as well as new Vice President Omar Suleiman alsomade an offer to hold talks with the opposition parties.

Though some groups accepted the offer, Nobel peace laureateand former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the leadingopposition figure, rejected it until the demand for Mubarak tostep down was met.

State television said negotiations were being heldbetween Suleiman and some national political forces.

The fast-paced developments came as the US and five EUnations -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain --released a joint statement calling for an immediate politicaltransition to end the violent unrest.

The protesters have vowed to intensify their struggle toforce Mubarak out by Friday, and repeated onslaughts on themby supporters of the besieged President appeared to have madetheir resolve stronger. (More) PTI NSA KIM AKD AKJ

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