Battle of Tahrir Square rages in Cairo
Cairo - They are covered in blood, but they keep returning to what they call "the front", where their fellow anti-government protesters battle regime supporters for control of Cairo's Tahrir Square, witnesses say.
Chaos consumed the symbolic gathering space on Wednesday as supporters of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak clashed with opposition protesters in running battles that have left at least 610 people injured and one dead.
Two Molotov cocktails thrown by pro-regime supporters land inside the grounds of the famous Egyptian museum, where they are swiftly put out, as the army fires warning shots into the air filled with rocks thrown by protesters.
"To the museum, to the museum", one man shouts into a megaphone, directing some of the anti-government protesters, who have spent nine days trying to oust Mubarak, to move closer to Egypt's world famous antiquities museum.
From there they launch a barrage of rocks towards regime supporters who have attacked them relentlessly since marching into the square on Wednesday afternoon.
The Mubarak partisans, who earlier charged their targets on camel and horseback, drop concrete blocks onto the crowd from above, and each side wields whatever weapons it has: rocks, batons, iron bars and daggers.
Nurse Aisha Hussein said hundreds of people were being treated for broken bones or gashes requiring stitches at a makeshift clinic in a mosque just off the square.
She described a scene of "absolute mayhem", as protesters flooded into the clinic.
"It looks like an abattoir in here," she said. "There's blood everywhere."
Nearby, anti-Mubarak protesters shatter pieces of pavement, breaking them down into pieces that can be carried to "the front" in bags, and then thrown at regime supporters.
A mother, caught in the melee with her children, leaves them in the care of another woman temporarily, so she can take her turn carrying projectiles to the demonstrators.
Mustapha al-Shorbagy, 60, said the actions of Mubarak's supporters showed the president's true colours.
"We've been here since Friday; the blood of more than 100 people has been spilled! And who is responsible? It's the president. How can he set Egyptians one against another? This is not a president, this is a devil!"
After unprecedented protests seeking to end his 30 years of rule, Mubarak announced on Tuesday he would not stand for re-election in September, and pledged to ease the conditions for presidential candidacy.
But he has not indicated any plans to step down immediately, the key demand of the anti-government protesters locked in bloody clashes with Mubarak's supporters on Wednesday night.
Mubarak's opponents accused the leader's National Democratic Party (NDP) of orchestrating the clashes and showed an AFP reporter four party membership cards they said were taken from demonstrators who began attacking people.
"The pro-Mubarak NDP and the secret police dressed in plain clothes, they invaded the place to get rid of the revolt," protester Mohammed Zomor, 63, told AFP.
The Interior Ministry denied plain-clothes police had entered the square, state news agency MENA said, but the opposition insisted that police had stormed the area, and there were fears that more would move in after dark.
"Members of security forces dressed in plain clothes and a number of thugs have stormed Tahrir Square," three opposition groups said in a statement.
Near the Egyptian Museum, tanks sit with their drivers sealed inside as stones thrown by protesters bounce off their armour and ricochet overhead. Some crew emerge briefly, holding pieces of cardboard as defence against the projectiles.
Nearby, young boys tap out a rhythm with all their might on metal structures "to scare the enemy", they say.
Nureddine Najeh, 25, assessed the violence of Mubarak's supporters as a sign of his weakness.
"He paid these people to attack us," he told AFP. "It's Mubarak's last card. Little by little he is losing control of everything."
Several thousand people remained in the square nearly five hours after sunset, as both sides continued throwing rocks and skirmishing and with army and civilian ambulances coming to take the wounded away.