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Egypt now 'in a war'

CAIRO -- Egyptian security forces stormed a Cairo mosque Saturday after a heavy exchange of gunfire with armed men shooting down from a minaret, rounding up hundreds of supporters of the country's ousted president who had sought refuge there overnight after violent clashes killed 173 people a day earlier.

The raid on the al-Fath Mosque on Ramses Square was prompted by fears that deposed President Mohammed Morsi's group, the Muslim Brotherhood, again planned to set up a sit-in, security officials said, similar to those that were broken up Wednesday in assaults that killed hundreds of people.

The arrest of the brother of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri came in connection to the raid on the mosque. Officials said he planned to bring in armed groups to provide support to those holed up inside the mosque.

Mohammed al-Zawahri, a Morsi ally, is the leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafist group, which espouses al-Qaida's hardline ideology. He was detained at a checkpoint in Giza, the city across the Nile from Cairo, the official said.

Also Saturday, the Egyptian government announced that it might ban the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-outlawed Islamist organization that swept to power a year ago in the country's first democratic elections.

Such a ban -- which authorities say is based on the group's use of violence -- would be a repeat to the historic and decades-long power struggle between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood.

For more than a month since the July 3 military overthrow of Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters have attacked and torched scores of police stations and Christian churches in retaliation. Shops and houses of Christians also have been targeted.

Such attacks spurred widespread public anger against the Brotherhood, giving the military-backed government popular backing to step up its campaign against the group. It reminded people of a decade-long Islamist insurgency against Mubarak's rule in the 1990s which only strengthened security agencies and ended up with thousands of Islamic fundamentalists in prisons.

The unrest in Egypt has raised international concerns over the country's stability and prompted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to condemn in a statement issued Saturday the "violent protests," in reference to Muslim Brotherhood's rallies, and the authorities' "excessive use of force."

Ban also noted, in an apparent rebuff of Muslim Brotherhood demands to reinstate Morsi, that the "political clocks move only forward, not backward" and urged "maximum restraint and [a] shift immediately to de-escalation."

Former President Jimmy Carter expressed deep concern over the violence, saying it is "rapidly eroding the chances for dialogue and a road to reconciliation." Carter added that he is "especially concerned that Egyptians are arming themselves and engaging in inter-communal violence."

In Cairo, the assault on the al-Fath Mosque began Friday, when pro-Morsi protesters and armed men fled into the worship center to avoid angry vigilantes and arrest. They piled furniture in the mosque's entrance to block authorities and the enraged anti-Morsi protesters from reaching them.

The mosque served as a field hospital and an open-air morgue after a Muslim Brotherhood-called "Day of Rage" broke into violence. By daybreak Saturday, security forces in armored personnel carriers had surrounded the mosque and it appeared that military-led negotiations might defuse the standoff.

A post on the Facebook page of the army spokesman, Col. Mohammed Ali, accused gunmen of firing from the mosque at nearby buildings, located on Ramses Square, in central Cairo. The upper floors of a commercial building and blood bank towering over the square caught fire during the mayhem, with flames engulfing it for hours.

A cleric, Sheik Abdel-Hafiz el-Maslami, told The Associated Press that people were afraid to leave the mosque out of fear of detention or being assaulted by the residents outside. He said there were armed men inside the mosque at one point but protesters had forced them out.

"We lost control over things," the cleric said. "There were men with arms in the mosque who were forced out of the mosque, but we can't control things here."

He said there were ongoing negotiations with the military to enable the protesters to safely leave. However, local journalist Shaimaa Awad who was trapped in the mosque with the Islamists said the talks failed when three women were detained by the military after agreeing to come out of the mosque.

An AP reporter said thousands of anti-Islamist protesters rallied outside the mosque, chanting: "God take revenge on Morsi and those standing behind him!"

Army soldiers closed off the main entrances to Ramses Square with armored vehicles and barbed wire.

By midday Saturday, gunmen had taken over a mosque minaret in the mosque and opened fire on the security forces and civilians below, the state-run MENA news agency said. The crowd around the mosque panicked as soldiers returned fire with assault rifles, the chaos broadcast live on local television channels.

Several security officials said ending the standoff at the mosque was essential after receiving information that the group planned to turn it into a new sit-in protest camp. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

On Wednesday, riot police, military helicopters, snipers and bulldozers broke up two sit-in protests in Cairo by Morsi supporters, leaving more than 600 people dead and thousands wounded. That sparked days of violence that killed 173 people and wounded 1,330 people on Friday alone, when the Muslim Brotherhood called for the "Day of Rage," Cabinet spokesman Sherif Shawki said.

Among those who died Friday was Ammar Badie, a son of the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, the group said in a statement.

Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who leads the military-backed government, later told journalists that authorities had no choice but to use force in the wake of recent violence.

"I feel sorry for valuable blood shed," el-Beblawi said. However, he cautioned that there will be no "reconciliation with those whose hands are stained with blood or those who hold weapons against the country's institutions."

Signaling the Muslim Brotherhood's precarious political position, Shawki said the government was considering ordering that the group be disbanded. The spokesman said the prime minister had assigned the Ministry of Social Solidarity to study the legal possibilities of dissolving the group. He didn't elaborate.

Mustafa Hegazy, a political adviser to interim President Adly Mansour, told reporters Saturday that the current Egyptian leadership is not in a "political dispute or difference" with the Muslim Brotherhood, instead, "we are in a war against treason and some sort of terrorism."

He added that Egyptians took to the streets on June 30 -- the day that led to Morsi's ouster -- to revolt against "religious fascism."

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, came to power a year ago when Morsi was elected in the country's first free presidential elections. The election came after the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising in 2011.

The Islamic fundamentalist group has been banned for most of its 85-year history and repeatedly was subjected to crackdowns under Mubarak's rule. While sometimes tolerated with its leaders allowed to be part of the political process, members regularly faced long bouts of imprisonment and arbitrary detentions.

Disbanding the group, experts say, would mean allowing security forces to have a zero-tolerance policy in dealing with the group's street protests, as well as going after its funding sources.

The possible banning comes amid calls by pro-military political forces to brand the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist organization."

Top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, remain held on a variety of charges, including inciting violence.

On Saturday, Egypt's Interior Ministry said in a statement that 1,004 Muslim Brotherhood members had been detained in raids across the country and that weapons, bombs and ammunition were confiscated from them.

On Saturday, Egypt's Interior Ministry said in a statement that 1,004 Muslim Brotherhood members had been detained in raids across the country and that weapons, bombs and ammunition were confiscated from them.

Several foreigners were also rounded up, as well, including Sudanese, Pakistanis and Syrians, the Interior Ministry said.


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