CAIRO — Top Egyptian security officials defended army and police actions in the clashes Monday in Cairo that led to the deaths of more than 50 people, saying they were defending the Republican Guard headquarters against attackers.
Health Ministry official Khaled al-Khatib said 51 had died and said 435 others were wounded when Egyptian security forces clashed with supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood outside the headquarters.
Witnesses said the military and police fired as protesters took a break from holding a vigil at the Republican Guard headquarters to perform their dawn prayers. Morsy was reportedly detained in the building after his arrest Wednesday.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif and army spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said security forces were under attack. Ali said that around 4 a.m. “an armed group” used bombs, rocks and bullets to attack the area and the people safeguarding the headquarters building.
Speaking to reporters, the officers said it’s the job of the security forces to protect protesters. But, they said, what unfolded was an assault and they had to embark on defending the institution.
Ali sloughed off claims from the pro-Morsy opposition, such as the killing of children, and warned of “lying,” “rumors,” and “psychological warfare.” Video meant to support the security forces’ position was shown at the news conference. They seemed to show a few protesters who may have had firearms, but the context of the images is hard to discern.
Amnesty International called Monday for an urgent independent investigation into the 51 deaths.
“There is a crucial need for independent and impartial investigations that can be trusted by all sides. However, Egypt’s authorities have a poor track record of delivering truth and justice for human rights violations,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme in a news release.
The Monday morning violence further deepened a crisis in the country — the Arab world’s most populous — where Morsi supporters have been squaring off daily with security forces after his ouster in a military coup last week.
CNN counted at least eight bullet-riddled bodies and up to 40 wounded at the chaotic emergency facility in the Egyptian capital, down the street from the site of the shooting. The upper bodies of the victims appeared to be peppered with shotgun pellets and bullet wounds.
Doctors tended to the victims, performing surgeries in many cases before shipping them out to other facilities. Egyptian flags were draped over those who did not survive.
CNN shot footage of men bleeding and bandaged on gurneys and blood on the ground. There were not enough ambulances to take all the injured to hospitals, CNN’s Karl Penhaul reported on the scene.
An Interior Ministry statement earlier said two security force members — a lieutenant and a recruit — were shot and killed. It is unclear if the Health Ministry toll includes these personnel.
Reacting to the shooting at the Republican Guard headquarters, the Al-Nour party — which supported Morsi’s ouster — withdrew from all talks about forming an interim government.
“We will not remain silent on the Republican Guard massacre,” party spokesman Nader Bakkar said. Interim President Adly Mansour ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the incident, according to state-run Nile TV.
The White House appeared to rule out an immediate cut in military aid to Egypt over last week’s coup, with spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters Monday, “It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs” to Cairo.
Asked repeatedly whether the ouster of Egypt’s president and nullification of the constitution was a military coup, Carney said the Obama administration would “take the time necessary” to assess what he called an “incredibly complex and difficult situation” before deciding how to proceed. Under current U.S. law, a coup would stipulate a change in American military aid.
Before the outbreak of violence Monday, than 30 people had died and 1,400 had suffered injuries since the coup. Egypt’s military declared over the weekend it was stepping up security efforts for the demonstrations.