Egyptian authorities have given police the go-ahead to use deadly force to protect themselves and key state institutions, new measures that come after supporters of the deposed Islamist president torched two government buildings in Giza, and U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled next month's U.S.-Egypt military exercises.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of national security, announced the new measures in a statement Thursday, a day after Egypt put in place a nationwide state of emergency. Clashes between Egyptian police and supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi have resulted in at least 638 deaths, Egypt's health ministry said Thursday, an increase from the previous tally of 525 killed in Wednesday's violence.
The city of Giza is next to Cairo and home to the famed pyramids.
Egypt's military-backed government also pledged Thursday to confront "terrorist actions and sabotage" allegedly carried out by members of former President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group since he was ousted in a military coup July 3.
The government buildings burned in Giza were a two-storey colonial-style villa and a four-storey administrative building. The offices are on Pyramids Road on the west bank of the River Nile.
State TV blamed Morsi supporters for the fire and broadcast footage showing both structures burning as fire men evacuated employees from the larger building.
Tamarod, the youth movement that had organized mass rallies calling Morsi's ouster, said citizens should set up neighbourhood watch groups to protect government and private property. Meanwhile, successive attacks on Coptic Christian churches continued for a second day, according to Egypt's official news agency and human rights advocates.
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Less than two hours before the police force measures were announced, Obama put Egypt on notice in cancelling the Bright Star military exercises that have been a centrepiece of the countries' military relations for decades. He also warned Egypt to lift its state of emergency and work towards peace or further action could be taken. Later Thursday, Canada urged Egyptians to show "restraint" and urged "all parties to engage in a productive dialogue to ease tensions."
"The U.S. strongly condemns the steps taken by Egypt’s military," said Obama, who interrupted his week-long vacation on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. "We oppose pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens.
"The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence … needs to stop. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully. Today, the U.S. extends its condolences to the families of those killed and wounded."
In his speech, Obama stopped short of making any shifts in policy toward Egypt. Officials are not calling Morsi's ouster a coup — taking that step would require the U.S. to cut off $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
The UN Security Council is set to meet Thursday evening to discuss the situation in Egypt.
Wednesday's violence began when police moved to clear two sit-in camps in Cairo by supporters of Morsi. The clashes there later spread to elsewhere in Cairo and a string of other cities.
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Before Obama's speech, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said Thursday it plans to hold a march in Cairo later in the day.
“Marches are planned this afternoon from Al-Iman mosque to protest the deaths,” the Islamist group said in a statement.
Near the site of one of the smashed encampments, in the eastern Nasr City district, dozens of blood-soaked bodies were stored inside a mosque. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and still unclaimed by families. Relatives at the scene were uncovering the faces in an attempt to identify their loved ones. Many complained that authorities were preventing them from obtaining permits to bury their dead.
Gehad El-Hadad of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaking via Skype to CBC's Heather Hiscox on Thursday morning, said it was "a mourning day. Today is the second day after the ... shame of yesterday where all these lives have been lost, many of them inside Cairo."
El-Hadad said funerals will be held Thursday afternoon for many of the dead before the bodies are taken to the families' burial grounds.
When asked how far the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to let the situation in Egypt escalate, El-Hadad responded:
"My generation has lived under military rule for most of our lives.... If it means that we continue fighting until we reverse this military coup and restore our democracy, as inexperienced as it was, I will continue doing so, even if we have to face the live bullets of the army once again."
'Extremely tense' in Cairo
Diana Eltahawy, a researcher with Amnesty International, said reports of what happened are "extremely conflicting" at this early stage.
"The Amnesty International team has tried to get to some of the main hospitals around the areas of the violence yesterday, and many of them were blocked by police and military forces – increasing concerns that actually more people might of died because they didn't get the necessary treatment on time" she said.
Eltahawy said among the dead were "journalists and people covering the events, women who were far away from the front lines – all raising concerns that the Egyptian security forces have yet again failed in protecting lives and resorted to lethal force when it was not absolutely necessary."
She said the atmosphere in Cairo was "extremely tense" and "extremely polarized with each side demonizing the other."
More protests and marches are planned for tomorrow, and the situation was is volatile, she said.
Grim scene inside mosque
Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian-American journalist based in Cairo who reports for Democracy Now, told CBC News that he witnessed the grim scene inside the mosque.
"People are bringing ice in to try to keep the bodies from decomposing," he said. "The smell of death is heavy. People are spraying air fresheners there, and there is a state of shock. At least 10 of the bodies that I saw were charred, burned beyond recognition."
Victims' names were scribbled on white sheets covering their bodies, some of which were charred. Posters of Morsi were scattered on the floor.
"They accuse us of setting fire to ourselves. Then, they accuse us of torturing people and dumping their bodies. Now, they kill us and then blame us," screamed a woman in a head-to-toe black niqab.
Omar Houzien, a volunteer helping families search for their loved ones, said the bodies were brought in from the Medical Center at the sit-in camp site in the final hours of Wednesday's police sweep because of fears that they would be burned.
A list plastered on the wall listed 265 names of those said to have been killed in Wednesday's violence at the sit-in. Funerals for identified victims were expected to take place later on Thursday.
Mass police funeral held
Meanwhile, a mass police funeral — with caskets draped in the white, red and black Egyptian flag — was held in Cairo for some of the 43 security troops killed in Wednesday's clashes.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, led the mourners. A police band played funerary music as a sombre funeral procession moved with the coffins placed atop red fire engines.
As well, on Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the United Nations Security Council to meet urgently to discuss the situation in Egypt, accusing the West of ignoring the bloodshed.
In a televised statement before departing for a visit to Turkmenistan, Erdogan also said Egypt's leaders should stand a "fair and transparent" trial for what he called a "massacre" that unfolded live on televisions as police smashed two protest camps of supporters of the deposed Islamist president.
He again called for the release from custody of Morsi and other members of his government, and said Egypt's current leaders should follow the example of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned as Egypt's interim vice-president in protest of the violence.
Morsi has been held at an undisclosed location on allegations of murder and spying. Other Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence or conspiring in the killing of protesters.
Egyptian judicial authorities have extended Morsi's detention period for 30 days, Reuters reports, quoting the state news agency.
Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-based party, had strongly backed Morsi as an example for the Arab world of a democratically elected, pro-Islamic leader. He has frequently accused the West for tacitly supporting Morsi's ouster and failing to call the July 3 military intervention that deposed him "a coup."
ElBaradei's resignation comes as a blow to the new leadership's credibility with the pro-reform movement.
Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said Wednesday, in a televised address to the nation, that it was a "difficult day" and that he regretted the bloodshed, but offered no apologies for moving against the supporters of Morsi, saying they were given ample warnings to leave and he had tried foreign mediation efforts.
The leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood called it a "massacre." Several of them were detained as police swept through the two sit-in sites, scores of other Islamists were taken into custody, and the future of the once-banned movement was uncertain.
"Egypt has never witnessed such genocide," Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told The Associated Press from the larger of the two protest camps before it was cleared.
Amin Mourad Meleika, consul general of Egypt in Montreal, told CBC News that it is "very tragic when any Egyptian's blood is shed. But what is even more tragic is there is a group called the Muslim Brotherhood who is bent on destruction, lying and deception that has orchestrated what seemed in the beginning as a peaceful sit-in demonstration into a campaign of terror, killing, intimidating of the population, amassing weapons."
The consul general said that Morsi was elected democratically, but later "took over every single power into his own hands" and tried to put together a constitution "just based on radical Muslim Brotherhood ideology."
He said millions of people rose up against Morsi, and it was a "very popular movement that demanded that the army interfere, and the army did interfere as requested by the people of Egypt."
The consul general said he couldn't agree that Morsi's ouster was a military takeover, characterizing it instead as a "military response to a popular upheaval."
With files from CBC News, Reuters