Egypt's pro-democracy revolution descended into violence and bloodshed overnight as President Hosni Mubarak's regime launched a co-ordinated bid to wrest back control of city streets, crush the popular uprising, and reassert its authority.
Bursts of heavy gunfire rained into Tahir square just before dawn today and there were reports that three more people had been killed. Protest organiser Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance. He said the gunfire came from at least three locations off in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene. Another witness said as many as 15 people had been wounded in the fresh clashes.
Clashes had continued into the early hours even though the pro-Mubarak supporters had been pushed back to the edge of the square and explosions – possibly from gas canisters – echoed around the area.
There were extraordinary scenes in the centre of Cairo as anti-government demonstrators fought running battles with organised cohorts of Mubarak supporters, exchanging blows with iron bars, sticks and rocks.
At one point pro-Mubarak forces rode camels and horses into central Tahrir Square, scattering opponents. At least three people were killed yesterday and up to 1,500 injured according to medical sources.
A palm tree and a building caught alight while fires were burning outside the historic Egyptian museum as petrol bombs were hurled back and forth between the two opposing factions.
The violence was immediately condemned by David Cameron, the Obama administration, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who condemned what he described as attacks on peaceful demonstrators. The White House warned that if any of the violence was instigated by the government it should stop immediately, and also strongly criticised the beating of local and foreign journalists, including a CNN reporter.
But after Mubarak's announcement that he would not seek another term at elections due in September, the regime appeared to be in no mood to listen – and determined to regain control after a week of near anarchy.
The strident tone was illustrated by a startling public rebuff to Barack Obama. Rejecting his overnight demand that the promised political transition and reforms begin without delay, the Egyptian foreign ministry said bluntly that meddling by "foreign parties" was unacceptable and was "aimed to incite the internal situation".
Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Guardian, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said: "Today's violence is again an indication of a criminal regime that has lost any commonsense. When the regime tries to counter a peaceful demonstration by using thugs … there are few words that do justice to this villainy and I think it can only hasten that regime's departure." Mubarak's announcement had been "an act of deception", he said. "But after today people are realising just what they're dealing with."
The trouble began when tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square ignored orders from the army to disperse. The army's move marked a change in tactics from previous days, when it declined to intervene, describing the protests as legitimate, and troops were feted by protesters.
At the same time Mubarak supporters, who had taken no part in events, began to gather, travelling in cars or by foot, numbering in the tens of thousands. Some said they had been bussed in from the countryside by the regime and claimed they had no intention of initiating a confrontation. Others said they had recently swapped sides, saying Mubarak had made enough concessions and he should have time to usher in change.
Initial sparring between rival groups quickly turned into running battles. Then, just before 2pm, armed with clubs, bats, knives and even homemade spears, a pro-Mubarak demonstration that had been gathering for several hours 800 metres from Tahrir Squareon the Nile Corniche, outside the state television station, charged in.
Guardian journalists in the square – close to both sides – witnessed pitched battles that turned the square into a warzone as anti-Mubarak protesters tried desperately to hold their ground and both sides tore up paving stones to use as weapons. Among those singled out for attack were journalists including Anderson Cooper of CNN and two Associated Press correspondents. A Belgian journalist – Maurice Sarfatti, who uses the byline Serge Dumont – was reportedly beaten, arrested and accused of spying.
At one stage tanks attempted to move between the two groups but did little to stop the escalating clashes. In one incident soldiers moved out of the way to permit pro-Mubarak demonstrators to reach their opponents. By late afternoon, groups of men were on roofs in Champollion Street, a few hundred metres away, hurling missiles down on those beneath them.
At just after six o'clock automatic weapons fire was heard. Some pro-Mubarak forces appeared to be plainclothes police, while others involved in the assault in Tahrir Square were said to have been paid by the regime. The interior ministry denied the reports, while the army denied firing on protesters.
In other cities the regime fought back strongly. In Alexandria, Mubarak supporters staged a furious counterprotest in a square that has seen protests for nine days, sparking violent arguments and altercations between rival groups.
The violence increased fears in western capitals that the crisis, far from being defused, was taking a more sinister turn. David Cameron said: "If it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable."