CAIRO // Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour declared a month-long state of emergency yesterday after police and troops staged a bloody crackdown on two Islamist protest camps in the capital.
Cairo was under curfew last night and Mr Mansour ordered the armed forces to support the police in efforts to restore law and order and protect state facilities.
Yesterday's action to clear the protest camps killed dozens, sparked clashes nationwide and prompted fears of more violence to come.
Riot police, armoured vehicles and bulldozers swept into the encampments that had been set up by Egyptians demanding that Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled by the army in July, be reinstated as president.
The interim government had repeatedly called on the Muslim Brotherhood end its protests but the swift and violent nature of yesterday's moves on the camps at the Rabaa Al Adawiyaa mosque and Al Nahda came as a surprise.
Health ministry officials set the death toll at 278 nationwide; the Muslim Brotherhood said it was many times higher. The interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim said 43 police officers were killed and police had seized 10 machine guns, 29 shotguns, 9,622 bullets, six grenades and six homemade pistols,.
Among the dead were Mick Deane, a camerman working for the British satellite channel Sky News, and Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, a Dubai-based reporter for a supplement of Gulf News.
Hazem Al Beblawi, Egypt's prime minister, accused the Brotherhood of having weapons at the sit-ins and said the government "had to interfere to return security".
He said the police had exercised maximum restraint against protesters who had illegal arms.
The crackdown was condemned by the US secretary of state John Kerry as "deplorable", and prompted the resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei, the newly installed vice president. The Nobel-winning liberal said he could not be responsible for "a single drop of blood".
Security forces said later they had detained the senior Brotherhood leaders Essam El Erian and Mohammed El Beltagi.
In the streets around the Rabaa Al Adawiyya mosque, where the larger of the camps was, clashes raged between protesters trying to get into the camp to support the demonstrators, and the army and police.
Thick clouds of smoke rose from Rabaa Al Adawiyya a few blocks away and heavy gunfire was clearly audible. People posted photos of dozens of bodies inside a makeshift field hospital inside the mosque and said live ammunition was fired into the camp.
It was the bloodiest day in Egypt since the 2011 uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power and came a month after 42 Brotherhood supporters were killed by troops in Cairo.
The United States opposed a return to a state of emergency, a White House spokesman said, and Turkey and Qatar were swift to condemn the violence.
"Qatar strongly denounces the means by which peaceful protesters in Rabaa Al Adawiyya camp and Al Nahda square have been dealt with," said its foreign ministry.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "I call on the security forces to exercise utmost restraint and on all Egyptian citizens to avoid further provocations and escalation."
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Emiratis in Egypt to keep away from areas in which the security forces were deployed against the protesters.
The unrest spread beyond the capital, with the cities of Minya, Assiut, Alexandria Fayoum and Suez all affected.
In Cairo, thousands of people, mainly supporting Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement, had surged toward the protest camps in the late morning. They had come from all over Cairo, they said, and would stay until the army left and Mr Morsi was restored to the presidency.
"We are ready to die," declared Asmaa Nounou, a 27-year-old television producer. Her aunt, Nihal Nounou, said: "They can kill millions of us, we don't want to die without dignity." They were among several groups of women, along with elderly men and some children, in the march. No weapons were visible, though some threw stones at the soldiers.
As they approached the barricades around the sit-in, they were engulfed in clouds of tear gas and hails of stun grenades and bullets. Ahmed Ramzi, a doctor, said that by 11am he had seen three people shot with live bullets. Around him, ambulances stood waiting: crowds of people rushed up with the injured: one shot in the leg, another, unconscious, was wounded in the chest.
To the clatter of protesters banging rocks on lamp posts and amid smoke from a bonfire of posters of military chief and defence minister Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the crowd chanted "with our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for Islam".
"This is an adventure of Sisi," said Abdelrahman Abdelhamid, 41, an English teacher standing in a shopfront cheering on the demonstrators. "Sisi was deceived by [US defence chief Chuck] Hagel. Hagel told him if you put all the Muslim Brotherhood in prison, you will be the next Nasser. But actually, he will be the new Qaddafi!"
Egyptian media reported that the smaller camp, outside Cairo University in Giza, was cleared entirely, although there were reports late yesterday that some of those who had fled were sheltering inside the university still. A security official said later the situation at the Rabaa Al Adiwiyya camp was "totally under control".
From the centre of protest against the interim authorities violence rippled out across the country, apparently between Islamist factions supporting Mr Morsi and their perceived enemies. Churches were attacked in the governorates of Assiut and Minya, and in the violent Sinai region.
The Coptic church, to which as many as 12 million Egyptians belong, issued a statement condemning the attacks. Clashes were reported in Alexandria between Brotherhood members and security forces on the corniche, and police stations and government buildings were reported burnt nationwide.
Ayoub Youssef a priest in Minya, a city with a large Christian population, said that Christians' shops had also been destroyed, and that security forces had deserted the streets. "This is giving our attackers more confidence to do what they want without any accountability," he said. "May God protect us from people who are trying to cause a sectarian war."
In Cairo, the usually packed streets were eerily empty. Some major roads were blocked by military in armoured personnel carriers, some by police and some by local residents wielding clubs.
* Additional reporting by Amina Ashraf