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EGYPT PROTESTS : Thousands of prisoners freed,curfew defied; US,Turkey plan evacuation.

ANTHONY SHADID

The Egyptian military reinforced parts of the capital on Sunday with tanks,fighter jets and helicopters as tens of thousands of protesters flooded central Cairo for the sixth day,defying yet again government orders of a nationwide curfew.

In a stunning collapse of authority,most police withdrew from major cities even as thousands of protesters converged on what has become the center of the uprising in Liberation Square.

Soldiers fired shots in the air in an effort to control the crowds,seized by growing fears of lawlessness and buoyed by euphoria that three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule may be coming to an end.

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Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons and the United States said it was organising flights to evacuate its citizens on Sunday. The American Embassy,which urged all Americans in Egypt to “consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so,” underlined a deep sense of pessimism among Egypt’s allies over Mubarak’s fate.

The Egyptian Army,the country’s most powerful institution and embedded deeply in all aspects of life here,deployed in greater numbers in the capital of 18 million. As many as 100 tanks and armored carriers gathered near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,the very site where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981,bringing Mubarak to power. Military helicopters flew over Cairo,circling Liberation Square through the day,and jets roared every few minutes across a late afternoon sky.

But the Army took no steps against the protesters,who cheered as the helicopters passed overhead. In an unprecedented scene,some of them lofted a captain in uniform on their shoulders,marching him through a Day 6: Special AI flight sent for stranded Indians square suffused with protesters that cut across Egypt’s entrenched lines of class and religious devotion.

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In contrast to the anxiety and apprehension elsewhere in Cairo,where looters broke into some shops,burned a shopping center and stole cars,a carnival atmosphere descended on the square,where vendors offered food at discount prices and protesters posed for pictures in front of tanks scrawled with slogans like,“30 years of humiliation and poverty.”

“The people and the army are one hand!” they shouted.

Several hours after nightfall,Mohammed El Baradei,the Egyptian Opposition figure and Nobel prize winner,arrived at the square. “What we have begun,we cannot go back,” he said,news agencies reported.

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Earlier in the day,he had called for Mubarak to leave office immediately to make way for a national unity government.

It was another tumultuous day in some of the most dramatic moments in Egypt in a generation. More than at perhaps any other point since the uprising began,the tumult on Sunday seemed perched between two deepening narratives: a vision of impending anarchy offered by the government,and echoed by many Egyptians fearing chaos,against the perspective of protesters and many others that the uprising had become “a popular revolution.”

Many have darkly suggested that the government intentionally allowed the collapse of authority as a pretext to justify a crackdown or discredit protesters’ calls for change.

Interior Ministry officials said prisoners had escaped from four prisons,including two of the country’s most notorious,Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun.

For two days,clashed had raged at Abu Zaabal,a prison north of Cairo,and officials said police had killed at least 12 inmates. There were scenes of chaos on Sunday as scores of people entered and left the prison’s main gate,which no longer appeared to be under the government’s control. Although two tanks were parked a few hundred yards away,the soldiers refused to intervene in the mayhem.

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The Muslim Brotherhood,Egypt’s most powerful Opposition,which has taken part in the protests but shied from leadership,said 34 of its members walked out of Wadi Natroun prison after guards abandoned their posts. All 34 had been arrested before dawn on Friday.

In a statement,the American Embassy said it was telling “US citizens in Egypt who wish to depart that the Department of State is making arrangements to provide transportation to safe haven locations in Europe.”

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“Flights to evacuation points will begin departing Egypt on Monday,Jan. 31,” the statement said,adding that the Obama administration had authorised the “voluntary repatriation” of American citizens including diplomats’ dependents and some employees not dealing with emergencies,meaning they could choose to leave if they wished.

Turkey,a major power in the region,also said it was sending three flights to evacuate 750 of its citizens from Cairo and Alexandria. France,Britain and Germany issued a joint statement urging Mubarak and the protesters to show restraint. But,like President Obama,they did not call for the ouster of an autocratic leader who has cast himself as a lynchpin of Western diplomatic and security interests in the Middle East.

First published on: 31-01-2011 at 04:45:18 am
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