* Health ministry says three dead, doctor says 1,500 injured
* Egyptian army tells protesters to clear the streets
* Mubarak says he will step down in September
(Raises death toll, updates situation in Tahrir square)
By Shaimaa Fayed and Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Backers of Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak, throwing petrol bombs, wielding sticks and charging on
horses and camels, assaulted demonstrators in Cairo on Wednesday
after the army told the protesters to go home.
Anti-Mubarak protesters hurled stones back and said the
attackers were police in plainclothes. The Interior Ministry
denied the accusation, and the Egyptian government rejected
international calls for Mubarak to end his 30-year rule now.
This apparent rebuff along with the appearance of Mubarak
supporters on Cairo's streets and their clashes with protesters
-- after days of relatively calm demonstrations -- complicated
U.S. calculations for an orderly transition of power.
In pointed comments, a senior U.S. official said it was
clear that "somebody loyal to Mubarak has unleashed these guys
to try to intimidate the protesters".
The emergence of Mubarak loyalists, whether ordinary
citizens or police, injected a new dynamic into the momentous
events in this most populous Arab nation of 80 million people.
The uprising broke out last week as public frustration with
corruption, oppression and economic hardship under Mubarak
boiled over. At least 140 people are estimated to have been
killed so far and there have been protests across the country.
As night fell, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman urged
the 2,000 demonstrators bedding down in Cairo's central Tahrir
(Liberation) Square to leave and observe a curfew to restore
calm. Suleiman said the start of dialogue with the opposition
depended on an end to street protests.
After dark the protesters barricaded the square against
groups of pro-Mubarak supporters who appeared to be trying to
penetrate the makeshift cordon. There was sporadic gunfire, with
blazes caused by firebombs, and the atmosphere was tense.
Officials said three people were killed in Wednesday's
violence and a doctor at the scene said over 1,500 were injured.
Reacting to the tumult in Egypt, a key ally, the White House
said it was vital for clashes to stop to ease a power handover.
"If any of the violence is instigated by the government it
should stop immediately," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace
laureate, called on the army to intervene to stop the violence
in Tahrir Square, the worst in the nine-day uprising against
Mubarak since protesters waged street battles last Friday.
Troops and tanks stood by as the violence raged.
Urging protesters to clear the streets, the armed forces
told them their demands had been heard. But some were determined
to occupy the square until Mubarak quits.
Khalil, a man in his 60s holding a stick, blamed Mubarak
supporters and undercover security men for the clashes.
"We will not leave," he told Reuters. "Everybody stay put."
The crisis has alarmed the United States and other Western
governments who have regarded Mubarak as a bulwark of stability
in a volatile region, and has raised the prospect of unrest
spreading to other authoritarian Arab states.
Mubarak went on television on Tuesday to say he would not
stand in elections scheduled for September. This was not good
enough for the protesters, who demanded he leave the country.
President Barack Obama telephoned the 82-year-old to say
Washington wanted him to move faster on political transition.
"The message that the president delivered clearly to
President Mubarak was that the time for change has come," Gibbs
said, adding: "Now means now." Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, in a call to Suleiman, underlined that U.S. position.
But Mubarak dug in his heels on Wednesday. A Foreign
Ministry statement rejected U.S. and European calls for the
transition to start immediately, saying they aimed to "incite
the internal situation" in Egypt.
"This appears to be a clear rebuff to the Obama
administration and to the international community's efforts to
try to help manage a peaceful transition from Mubarak to a new,
democratic Egypt," said Robert Danin, a former senior U.S.
official now at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
The administration will want to see order restored without
compromising the standing of the Egyptian army, which it
supplies annually with about $1.3 billion in aid.
Many analysts see the army as trying to ensure a transition
of power that would allow it to retain much of its influence.
International backing for Mubarak, for three decades a
stalwart of the West's Middle East policy, a key player in the
Middle East peace process and defence against the spread of
militant Islam, crumbled as he tried to ride out the crisis.
France, Germany and Britain also urged a speedy transition.
Some of the few words of encouragement for him have come
from oil giant Saudi Arabia, a country seen by many analysts as
vulnerable to a similar outbreak of discontent.
Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, is
also watching the situation in its western neighbour nervously,
weighing the possibility that Islamists hostile to the Jewish
state might gain a share of power in Cairo.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Wednesday for
"bolstering Israel's might" in response to turmoil n Egypt.
FIGHTING IN THE SQUARE
Troops made no attempt to intervene as opposing factions
clashed in the vast Tahrir Square, the focus of the protests.
Attackers brandished baseball bats and iron bars and broke up
pieces of paving stones to throw.
Earlier, pro-Mubarak youths were bussed into various
districts of the capital. Thousands were involved in what
escalated into pitch battles.
Reuters correspondents saw dozens injured and people fleeing
in panic. One of the riders who wielded whips and sticks as they
galloped into the crowd was dragged from his horse and beaten.
Petrol bombs landed in the gardens of the Egyptian Museum.
Journalists said they were targeted by pro-Mubarak supporters.
An opposition coalition, which includes the Islamist Muslim
Brotherhood group, responded to the army warning to leave Tahrir
Square by calling for more protests. It said it would only
negotiate with Suleiman, a former intelligence chief appointed
by Mubarak at the weekend, once the president stepped down.
At the weekend, Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet and promised
reform but that was not enough for the protesters.
One million people took to the streets of Egyptian cities on
Tuesday calling for him to quit. Many protesters spoke of a new
push on Friday, the Egyptian weekend, to rally at Cairo's
presidential palace to dislodge Mubarak.
The uprising was inspired in part by a popular revolt in
Tunisia last month which overthrew long-ruling President Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali. The mood is spreading across the region.
King Abdullah of Jordan replaced his prime minister on
Tuesday following protests there. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah
Saleh, an important U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda,
said on Wednesday he would not seek to extend his presidency.
Oil prices fell back from 28-month highs, but North Sea
Brent crude was still more than $101 a barrel because of worries
that unrest in Egypt could kindle yet more political upheaval
across the Middle East and North Africa.
But with Mubarak pledging to go, foreign investors have
begun to show renewed interest in Egyptian bonds and stocks, and
the cost of insuring Egyptian debt against default fell.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond, Patrick Werr, Dina
Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Alexander Dziadosz, Yasmine
Saleh, and Alison Williams in Cairo; Writing by Peter
Millership; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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