Security forces in Egypt have started clearing a sit-in in Cairo, where supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi have camped out for weeks, demanding his reinstatement. Preliminary reports suggest casualties.
Police reportedly used tear gas at two sites in Cairo, the largest one outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, in the early hours of Wednesday. Authorities had said for around two weeks that they intended to clear the protest sites, one of which sprung up shortly before President Mohammed Morsi was ousted.
"It is the beginning of the operation to disperse the protesters," news agency AFP quoted an unnamed security official as saying. AFP also reported that one of its correspondents had counted 15 dead bodies at a makeshift morgue at the Rabaah al-Adawiya camp.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad wrote "100+ dead & 2,000+ wounded" on his Twitter account, also calling for supporters to take to the streets to protest what he called a massacre. Just over 30 minutes later, al-Haddad wrote "250+ confirmed deaths. [Doctors] saying most critical patients will die from their bullet wounds. Over 5,000 wounded." None of these claims were immediately verifiable. Al-Haddad had previously asked "are we just numbers now," and questioned "is there an unacceptable death toll everyone is waiting for?"
Egyptian state television, meanwhile, reported that the smaller of the two protest camps was completely cleared by the mid-morning on Wednesday. The interior ministry also said the Al-Nahda Square was "totally under control" and that "police forces have managed to remove most of the tents in the square."
Protesters who support the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's first democratically-elected president had begun to convert the camps into more permanent facilities, setting up makeshift shops and services, even installing solar panels in anticipation of authorities cutting their power. Sand bags and other reinforcements were placed at some points of entry, as protesters sought to secure the location.
The military on Monday said its plans to disperse the camp were postponed. The talk of clearing the protests had caused more people sympathetic to Morsi's cause to join the sit-ins.
Morsi was removed from power by the military on June 3; the army set this date as a deadline for the president to appease his opponents or face removal. The military was responding to large-scale public protests against Morsi - centered around Cairo's Tahrir Square and timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Morsi taking up office.
Morsi narrowly won a run-off election against independent candidate Ahmed Shafik in May 2012.
Separate clashes between civilians in Cairo were reported overnight. More than 250 people, the majority of them Morsi supporters, have been killed in Egypt since the military took temporary control.
msh/hc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)