By MARIAM RIZK, AP
January 5, 2014, 2:17 pm TWN
CAIRO — The death toll from the latest clashes between Islamist protesters and security forces in Egypt has risen to 17, a security official said Saturday, less than two weeks ahead of a key referendum on an amended constitution.
Meanwhile, 13 of the country’s most prominent human rights groups issued a report condemning the authorities’ human rights violations and recent arrests of political activists.
In what were the deadliest street battles in months, Cairo and other heavily populated residential areas on Friday witnessed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters throw firebombs and rocks at security forces, who responded with water cannons and tear gas.
Health Ministry Spokesman Mohammed Fathallah said 62 people were injured in the violence.
The security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said police arrested 258 protesters and confiscated homemade bombs, firearms, knives, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
Among the security forces, 17 were injured in the clashes, and three vehicles and a traffic office in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria were set on fire, he said.
The streets were mostly calm on Saturday and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim warned that the police “will not tolerate assaults on the safety of Egypt’s citizens.”
“The security apparatus will not leave Egypt hostage in the hands of the outlaws,” he said during a visit to a security training headquarters.
Street protests have been a regular event across the country since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood, in a July 3 coup after millions of anti-Islamist protesters demonstrated to demand his resignation.
Morsi’s supporters have taken to the streets to demand his reinstatement and the new military-backed authorities have responded with a crackdown. Hundreds of Brotherhood members were killed when authorities broke up their protest camps, thousands have been arrested and scores were sent to trial.
The government has designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and sought to drain its resources, ordering last week the seizure of assets of hundreds of non-governmental groups on suspicions of links to the Brotherhood. Hundreds of the group’s leaders and businessmen have also had assets seized.
The Brotherhood has called for a boycott of the Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 referendum on the constitution drafted by a secular-leaning assembly, and plans bigger rallies in the days ahead. A Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance has called on supporters to “continue the days of rage” and to mobilize protesters against the “illegitimate referendum.”
The Friday statement had a sectarian tone, accusing a Christian business tycoon and the founder of a liberal party of using militias against Islamists protesters.