Cairo: Egypt's military rulers blamed Christian protesters and "enemies of the revolution" on Wednesday for triggering the clashes that left 26 dead, almost all of them Christians. The accusation was sure to enflame the fury within and beyond the Christian community over the worst violence since Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
At a lengthy news conference to present their version of the events, generals from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed footage of priests and a Coptic Christian activist they accused of "instigating" the violence on Sunday night with calls for demonstrations and storming the state television building. He accused protesters of "savage" attacks on the military.
Many of those killed were crushed when armored military vehicles speed through crowds of protesters and ran them over. Other victims had gunshot wounds. The clashes outside the state television building were the worst between the military and protesters in the eight months since Egypt's uprising and has put the ruling generals on the spot.
In front of more than 50 reporters, Major General Adel Emara, a member of the ruling council and deputy defense minister, tried to clear the military of any blame in the killings. He denied troops opened fire at protesters, claiming their weapons did not even have live ammunition. He said it was not in "the dictionary of the armed forces to run over bodies ... even when battling our enemy."
Emara said a minority of protesters were peaceful, but a more violent, armed crowd joined the demonstration and began attacking a unit of about 300 soldiers, armed only with anti-riot gear.
"I want to bring to your attention that the protesters outside Maspero (state television) had many strange things with them: swords, gas cylinders, firebombs," he said. "This was an indication that this was not a peaceful protest."
Coptic Christians, who represent about 10 per cent of Egypt's 85 million, say they are treated like second-class citizens and repeated attacks on them go unpunished. But many Egyptian Muslims perceive Christians with suspicion, claiming they are empowered by western support and exploit any means to press their interests.
Christians have felt increasingly vulnerable since Mubarak's ouster while Islamist extremists, known as Salafis, have gained freer rein and are suspected behind many of the attacks on Copts.
The military's charges looked certain to deepen the sectarian rift.
Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a member of the Revolution Youth Coalition, reacted to the military's account by saying: "Frankly, the council is belittling people's intelligence."
"These are blatant lies. The witnesses and the video clips prove that there was monstrous suppression by the army of a peaceful protest," he added. "So a soldier is given an excuse for killings, while civilians are to blame."
Witnesses and Christian protesters have denied the demonstrators started the fighting. Videos show that the violence appeared to begin when military police with shields charged protesters who were peacefully holding speeches outside the state TV building. Another shows a soldier firing at protesters at close range from the back of a speeding armored vehicle weaving through the crowd.
The military's explanation aimed clearly to draw sympathy for the troops, particularly with those Egyptians who have grown weary of the daily disruptions to life and the economic hardships that the uprising has brought.
While failing to give a solid explanation for the flattened and torn bodies of the slain protesters who were apparently run over, Emara said soldiers were "in an unprecedented mental state beyond self control" after coming under protesters' attacks.
"I cannot deny that some people may have been hit. But it was not systematic," Emara said.
According to forensic reports for the slain protesters, a third of victims were killed by being run over by the armored vehicles, while two-thirds were shot with live ammunition. At least 21 of the 26 killed were Christians.
The military showed video of the events including scenes of a protester hurling a heavy stone at soldiers inside an armored vehicle and others beating up soldiers. Another showed a bloody soldier being carried away on a stretcher. The military has not said how many soldiers died, but security officials put the number at three.
A dozen youth groups and political parties, most of them born during the uprising, said in a statement that the clashes were a"turning point" in the revolution and the military crackdown on protesters was more violent than Mubarak's response to the uprising.
The statement praised Egypt's Christians for participating "in the struggle for freedom and social justice and equality with their blood."
The groups dismissed the generals' account that the protesters attacked the troops, saying the ruling military council led a "conspiracy to slaughter peaceful protesters- Christian and Muslim- who came out demanding equality between all Egyptians in their rights and duties."
"The issue has clearly gone beyond sectarian policies ... or the usual dragging of protesters by the military police to burning all of Egypt, and putting it on the brink of civil war, to distract Egyptians from their real enemy, and to derail the revolution," the statement said. The groups demanded the military council hand over power to a new transitional government.