Security officials said the clashes broke out at dawn when the assailants set upon several hundred protesters who had camped outside the defence ministry in the Egyptian capital since Saturday.
Election candidates suspend campaigns after clashes at Cairo protests
CAIRO // Clashes erupted today between assailants and mostly Islamist protesters gathered outside the defence ministry in the Egyptian capital, leaving at least 11 people dead and nearly 50 wounded.
Security officials said the clashes broke out at dawn when the assailants set upon several hundred protesters who had camped out in the area since Saturday to demand that the ruling military step aside.
A security official confirmed the toll. The health ministry has so far confirmed nine dead.
It was not clear if the victims were all protesters or if any of the attackers were among the dead. It was also not clear who the attackers were. The clashes resumed later in the morning, after a few hours' lull, but then stopped again when lines of riot police and army troops backed by armoured vehicles moved in to separate the two sides.
Two presidential candidates said they had temporarily suspend their campaigns over the killings.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi told reporters he decided to suspend his campaign for 48 hours "in solidarity with the protesters".
He blamed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) because it is the ruling authority.
Scaf "is the first to be responsible," he said.
The violence is the latest episode in more than a year of turmoil in Egypt following the removal of long-time authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak and will likely fuel more tensions three weeks ahead of presidential elections.
The ruling military generals who took over from Mubarak in February last year have promised to hand over power to a civilian administration by July 1 but that has not stopped rallies demanding the generals leave immediately.
Most of the protesters were supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist lawyer who was thrown out of the presidential race because his mother held dual Egyptian-US citizenship, which violates eligibility rules for running in the election.
Officials said rocks, clubs and firebombs were used in the clashes. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots during the fighting, which lasted several hours.
Video footage broadcast on regional television channels showed pitched battles between the two sides on residential streets close to the defence ministry in the district of Abbasiyah.
The rattle of gunshots could be heard in the footage and Ismail supporters chanting "Allahu Akbar", as others pelted their attackers with rocks. It was not clear who was shooting. Some of the protesters carried clubs, while many wore hard hats to protect their heads from flying rocks and other projectiles.
The protest camp near the defence ministry began on Saturday with only Ismail supporters but they were later joined by die-hards from various pro-democracy groups. The protesters' number would swell to up to two or three thousands in the evenings but stayed around 1,000 during the days.
There have been unconfirmed media reports that some supporters brought firearms to their encampment after an attack by assailants earlier this week that left one protester dead.
Troops and police deployed in the area around the defence ministry had not intervened in earlier attacks there and at first did nothing to stop the killings today, letting the clashes continue until noon when they moved in.
Since the weekend, Egypt's pro-military state media have said the assailants were residents angered by the disruption caused by the protests to life in their neighbourhood. But pro-democracy activists maintain the assailants operate with the blessing of the police or the military, and that they may even be on their payroll.
Today's attack came hours after the protesters outside the defence ministry said they had caught an off-duty army officer who came to the area to look around, an act that must have been taken by the generals as an insult to the armed forces.