CAIRO // A soldier died and at least 600 people were injured when supporters of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stormed an anti-government rally in Cairo yesterday.
The battle broke out hours after the military urged protesters to go home, and said it was time for them to help to return the country to "normal life".
Wielding makeshift truncheons in one hand and hoisting banners supporting the embattled Egyptian leader in the other, mobs broke through a line of soldiers deployed to protect the protesters, who were gathered in Tahrir Square for a ninth straight day. The stone-throwing gangs were followed by dozens of the president's supporters rushing the crowd on horses and camels.
The sound of gunfire echoed through the square as stunned soldiers fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Scores of people, their heads and faces covered in blood, were seen stumbling away from the melee. Several young men carried their wounded friend on a stretcher fashioned out of pieces of metal fence.
An Egyptian army conscript died during the clashes, the most prolonged violence since last Friday, when riot police cracked down on protesters. Last night the White House said it deplored the violence against "peaceful protesters".
The attempt by Mr Mubarak's supporters to reclaim the streets of central Cairo came the day after the Egyptian leader announced that he would not seek re-election in September.
His decision is believed to have come in response to the unprecedented protests demanding an end his 30-year-rule, and to intensified pressure from the United States, the president's closest western ally.
Many Egyptians accused Mr Mubarak of using his concession as a pretext to unleash an attack on his still numerous detractors.
"The president is using this as a tool to divide the Egyptians," said Gamal Madali, 50, a physicist who was standing outside one of the entrances to the square. He waited for his 22-year-old son, who was trapped in the square by a scrum of the president's supporters and plainclothes police that had blocked its entrances.
"Mubarak is using the police against us, to ruin the protests," said Mr Madali, an allegation Egypt's interior ministry denied.
In an apparent bid to end more than a week of protests that have brought Egypt's economy to a virtual halt, the government yesterday restored the internet and other telecommunications services.
But unappeased by the president's concessions, protesters had prepared another day of demonstrations to call for his immediate resignation.
Many, such as Mohammed Saaidi, 35, a secondary school teacher who slept in the square last night, vowed to press on until Mr Mubarak leaves office. "Until September? Impossible!" he shouted. He held a sign that read: "Mubarak, time to get a new job. Egypt wants a new president now."
Nuran Mahmoud, a 22-year-old pharmacist, stood in Tahrir Square with her parents yesterday morning. Unlike some other protesters, she did not hold Mr Mubarak in contempt. She said merely that it was time for him to go.
"We believe Mubarak is a good man, but people have limits, and after 30 years he has reached his limit," Ms Mahmoud said.
Scores of people seemed prepared for a prolonged standoff against the president despite calls by the military for protesters to cease their demonstrations and go home. Dozens of tents and makeshift shelters have sprouted around the square, where both men and women slept, ate and held sometimes heated political discussions.
Ala'a Mohammed has slept alongside hundreds of others in Tahrir Square's Omar Makram mosque for days, and vowed that he was prepared to continue doing so for as long as it took to unseat Mr Mubarak.
"All of the youth are insisting that Mubarak get out - all 100 per cent of him," the 35-year-old electrical engineer said.
Others in Tahrir Square seemed satisfied by the president's willingness to leave office and urged fellow protesters to heed the military's orders to disperse.
"We no longer need to protest any more - we've won," said Ahmed Abulmeneh, 56. His usual job is selling souvenirs to tourists near the pyramids in Giza, on the outskirts of the city. "We're very happy today! It's coming to an end!"
Businessmen with shops close to Tahrir Square also said they hoped the protests would end. "Mubarak is stability - we need him now," said Ahmed Ahmed, 20, an employee at his family's clothing store just off Talaat Harb Street.
But on the same street, the finger of blame for fomenting trouble was aimed at the president's supporters. Nadia Hussein, 24, a physician who lives on the street, said more than a thousand of what she said were plainclothes policemen moved in on Tuesday evening to intimidate protesters as they left the square.
"The thugs were carrying machetes and sticks," she said. "The soldiers turned their guns on the thugs. That scared them off."
The president's supporters converged yesterday morning on the entrances to Tahrir Square. They scuffled with protesters, some spitting on them as they entered the square. Soldiers clad in fatigues, and protesters who formed human chains, denied several hundred of the president's loyalists entry to the square.
After clashes with the protesters erupted, some sympathisers of Mr Mubarak described the violence as a necessary evil for returning stability to the country.
"Yesterday, I was inside Tahrir because I wanted to get rid of Mubarak," said Sami Fathi, a 30-year-old radio broadcaster. He was standing next to a large group of men holding up placards of the president's face.
"But today I'm here because all the banks are closed and I have no money. My company can't pay me. We need Mubarak because we need stability."