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Egyptians guard against looting on sixth day of protests

Officials say thousands of Islamist inmates have escaped, but activists say the government may be trying to create panic. As unrest continues, the U.S. Embassy tells Americans to consider leaving promptly.

January 30, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • An Egyptian with a knife mans a makeshift checkpoint in a Cairo neighborhood.
An Egyptian with a knife mans a makeshift checkpoint in a Cairo neighborhood. (Yannis Behrakis, Reuters )

Egyptian authorities scrambled fighter jets low over a crowd of thousands of protesters in the capital city of Cairo Sunday afternoon as a sixth day of mass protests got underway and the military announced full control over major cities, Arab television showed.

There were also reports of protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's second city of Alexandria.

Residents stood guard against potential looting in their neighborhoods. Al Arabiya television reported that shops have been targeted in a rash of looting incidents and that the army had arrested an unspecified number of outlaws in the act of stealing.

Arabiya also reported in urgent screen captions that thousands of Islamists held in prisons had escaped from the Wadi Natroun prison north of Cairo.

The Associated Press cited unnamed security officials as saying prisoners had escaped from four prisons. But many Egyptian activists wonder whether the regime is creating a security panic in order to send protesters scurrying back to their homes, according to comments posted to the Internet.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sunday urged Americans in Egypt to consider leaving the country for security reasons, news agencies reported.

Reporters in Cairo quoted by Arab television channels said there was an increased presence of military vehicles in the streets. The noisy crush of motor vehicles with beeping horns and pedestrians hurrying to work was all but absent.

Soldiers stood guard on streets, preventing drivers from accessing key roads. The army has pleaded with Egyptians to abide by a 6 p.m. curfew that has so far been brazenly flaunted.

For nearly a week, Egypt has been rocked by its worst civil unrest in recent history. Inspired by the popular uprising that toppled the 23-year regime of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, ordinary Egyptians have taken to the streets to oppose Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years. Led by a new generation of youth, they have defied Mubarak's extensive security apparatus, including police, which have largely fled their posts and left the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to the army.

Cell phone and Internet traffic continued to be spotty, the result of the regime's attempt to prevent protesters from organizing via text messages and social networking websites such as Facebook.

Mubarak's regime has also taken heavy-handed measures against international media. Al Jazeera on Sunday condemned the closure of its Cairo bureau by Egyptian authorities. The Doha-based channel, which has energized activists with its nonstop coverage of widespread protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab wrold, vowed to continue their work.

"Al Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists," the network said in a statement. "In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard."

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are motivating people around the Arab world to voice solidarity. Protesters gathered Friday in front of the Egyptian embassies in Amman, Jordan and Beirut.

"We would like to see all authoritarian regimes change their policies or risk the wrath of their people," Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was quoted as saying.

He added that the event was a sign of Arab solidarity. "Arab reform has started in Tunisia and we expect to see it everywhere."

Protests against authoritarian Arab regimes have also broken out in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. In Lebanon on Sunday morning, several hundred protesters marched in Beirut to demand the country's fragmented political elite quit squabbling and address economic concerns.

"Tunisia and Egypt had only one dictator," said Maytham Kassir, 20, a student at the Lebanese University. "We have or 15 or 16."

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Meris Lutz contributed to this report.

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