CAIRO // Egyptian soldiers and riot police ended a three-week sit-in at Tahrir Square yesterday by storming the square, tearing down barricades and tents and beating and arresting demonstrators.
The operation, which involved more than a dozen armoured vehicles and hundreds of soldiers and riot police, began shortly before 3pm as troops began to mass in streets leading to the square.
Three hours later, little remained of the tent camp as employees of the city's sanitation department moved in quickly to clear the area of debris.
Drivers honked their horns jubilantly as traffic passed freely through the square for the first time in weeks.
Many passers-by cheered the military and their actions. Others cheered as the military made arrests, including the temporary detention of foreign and Egyptian journalists.
In recent weeks many Egyptians, especially those living in the Tahrir area, have complained that the sit-in was paralysing life and commerce in the area.
According to demonstrators, at least 30 of those in the camp were arrested by the military and later released. One of those arrested was said to be 12 years old.
Some demonstrators threw rocks but most attempted to block the military and were quickly moved aside by the overwhelming number of troops and security officers.
Some supporting civilians and plainclothes security officers followed the military into the square to dismantle the camp.
The activist Lilian Wagdy, who was in Tahrir when the army charged in, said the clashes began when some protesters tried to stop the troops from reaching the square through makeshift checkpoints they had erected to check IDs.
"The soldiers rushed in, charged toward the tents and brought them down," she said. "The civilians who rushed in behind the army were cheering and shouting 'The army and people are one hand'."
Ms Wagdy said she was beaten by one of the civilians and one of the soldiers tried to grab her mobile phone. She said a plainclothes security officer also tried to abduct her, and attempted to force her into an alley off one of the main streets.
"I fought back and ran," she said. "They beat people with sticks and electrified batons. I don't see why they had to use excessive force like this."
The operation came as no surprise to the roughly 200 protesters in the camp at the time, Ms Wagdy said. "We heard rumours about this every day."
"They came to rob us," shouted a distraught protester as he surveyed the remains of the camp. "The first day of Ramadan, and they do this to us? Why? What are we? Non-believers?"
Plainclothes military intelligence officers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying batons sat in the square after the demonstrators were cleared. After the confrontations, the square's central area was covered with the personal belongings of the protesters and the tents' torn canvas.
"This situation doesn't please God," said a Cairo municipality employee who was leading the clean-up effort. "Dirtiness, obstructing the country and obstructing traffic and obstructing people's businesses. What is this? This is unacceptable."
Egypt's activists, many of whom are suspicious of the ruling military council's pledges to bring genuine reforms, are demanding Mubarak loyalists be weeded out from key state institutions such as the judiciary, police and civil service.
One officer when asked why the operation had taken place on the first day of Ramadan, said: "They must have orders from the marshal," referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egpyt's nominal leader since Mr Mubarak was removed.
Mr Mubarak's trial on charges that he ordered the killing of protesters in the crackdown this year is scheduled to start in Cairo tomorrow. Seeing him and other members of his regime brought to public trial is a key demand of the protesters.
Yesterday's clashes came after a small group of protesters decided to continue the sit-in at Tahrir Square even though most groups decided to end it to mark the start of Ramadan.
Many of those who had remained at the square were relatives of some of the 850 protesters killed during the uprising.
The relatives and other protesters wanted to continue with the sit-in until Mr Mubarak appears in court.
Others wanted to stay at the square until all other demands are met.
Mr Mubarak, his security chief and six top police officers could face the death sentence if convicted of ordering the use of lethal force against the protesters.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press