Reporting from Cairo — Thousands of supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attacked anti-government forces in Cairo's main square Wednesday, some charging in on camels and horses in a dramatic escalation of violence that prompted an official order to clear the area.
After days of raucous but peaceful demonstrations that had resembled a giant block party, pro-Mubarak forces pushed their way into the square from side streets, wielding clubs and horse whips against cordons of protesters.
The crowd of anti-government demonstrators, sparse compared to their numbers in previous days, hurled stones and chunks of concrete. The conflict continued into the evening, with government supporters pelting Tahrir Square with Molotov cocktails from nearby rooftops.
Sirens wailed as ambulances carried away injured government supporters who were accessible from the outside. Inside the square, leaders of the protest movement could be heard using megaphones exhorting their supporters to hold out.
Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said three people were killed and about 600 were hurt in the confrontation. State television broadcast an order late in the day for all protesters to leave the square because of "provocative elements throwing firebombs." It did not specify who gave the order, or a deadline for compliance.
Heavy gunfire broke out after 10 p.m. while the opposing factions traded Molotov cocktails from one rooftop to another, setting small fires that continued to burn but did not spread.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has become the symbolic head of the opposition to Mubarak, said in an interview with the Al Jazeera satellite television channel that he feared the confrontation could lead to a bloodbath.
The pro-Mubarak forces apparently were emboldened by the president's vow the day before to serve out his term through the autumn.
"In spirit and blood we want you, Mubarak," the president's supporters chanted. "You are our president. You are our president."
Army forces deployed at the historic square, which had previously shown restraint, turned water cannon on the crowd to quell the confrontation.
At El Bustan street, just off the square in central Cairo, the two sides surged back and forth for more than an hour, with at least a dozen of the pro-Mubarak Egyptians injured by the flying stones. At least two were carried away unconscious. One man staggered off with blood running down his face after apparently being hit by a rock. Other men brandished wooden clubs and glass bottles.
Much of the fighting was concentrated in front of the landmark Egyptian Museum. As rival groups threw rocks and bottles back and forth, terrified bystanders huddled in doorways around the periphery of the square.
Al Jazeera showed scenes of men on horeseback and camels storming into the crowds in an apparent attempt to put an end to nine days of protests demanding Mubarak's immediate departure. At one point, the anti-government demonstrators attacked one of the men on horseback, pulling him down to the street and pummeling him.
Finally, army armored vehicles moved in. By late afternoon, the military had blocked some of the major entrances to the square, pushing the two sides apart.
Wednesday morning, before the fighting, the Egyptian military had called for a halt to demonstrations and urged protesters to go home. The announcement on state television was widely seen as a signal that the military had not abandoned Mubarak, who late Tuesday night announced he would not run for reelection in the fall. Opposition leaders immediately rejected Mubarak's announcement as a ploy to hold onto power.
"You are the ones capable of returning normal life to Egypt," military spokesman Ismail Etman said on state television. "Your message has arrived, your demands have become known."
"The armed forces call on the protesters to go home for the sake of bringing back stability," came another statement on state television.
Many of the anti-Mubarak forces were unaware of the military's request to disband — and said they would disregard it in any event.
"We're not leaving. We'll sit under the tanks if the army tries to stop us," said Omar Adli, an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. Then he broke off speaking to run toward a nearby knot of men who had begun shoving one another and throwing punches.
The push into the square by pro-Mubarak forces appeared highly organized, concentrated on a few key access routes to the plaza. The anti-Mubarak protesters have accused the Egyptian leader's allies of paying people to rally in his support — and to use force to intimidate anti-government demonstrators.
The political upheaval, ignited by a popular uprising that drove Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali from power Jan. 14, has shaken the Arab world and galvanized calls for change across the region, including in Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen.