Egyptian police clash with refugees

December 31, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO -- Egyptian riot police armed with clubs and water cannons stormed a downtown square packed with Sudanese war refugees before dawn yesterday in an attack that a human rights group said left 23 people dead.

About 2,000 Sudanese had been living for months in a dilapidated tent city near the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, demanding to be resettled abroad. Their protest was viewed by many Cairo residents as an eyesore in one of the city's upscale areas.

Thousands of Egyptian riot police massed around the square early yesterday and tried to force the demonstrators onto buses. When they refused to leave, police fired water cannons and beat them with clubs. The clashes dragged on for hours; TV footage showed the Sudanese fighting back with tent poles and bottles. Witnesses said at least one child was among the dead.

"They didn't have to go that far," said Fathy Zayed, a 50-year-old Egyptian who said police beat the protesters mercilessly. "There were women and children there."

The Egyptian Interior Ministry put the death toll at 10, but the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights counted 23 dead. In a six-page statement, the ministry said that the deaths and injuries were caused by a stampede.

The confrontation "came after the UNHCR office in Cairo received warnings of possible assault on its headquarters and staff, which in turn asked the security to protect them and disperse the sit-in," the statement said.

A UNHCR spokeswoman told Reuters that the organization had no warning that the police would raid the tent city yesterday morning.

The U.N. agency said in a statement that it had tried since the protest began in September to resolve the dispute. "Throughout this period, UNHCR maintained a constant dialogue and several mediation efforts, always emphasizing that such situations needed to be resolved peacefully," it said.

"There is no justification for such violence and loss of life," High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said in the statement.

Once the violence subsided, the protesters were rounded up on buses and driven to military camps around Cairo to determine their status, officers at the scene said.

Heaps of blankets, still damp from the water cannons, remained at the square as evidence of the sit-in. Family photos lay across the ground, among children's sandals and empty baby milk tins. English-language tutorial kits scattered across the rubble spoke to their hopes for a better life.

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