CAIRO — Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters poured into the streets of Egypt Friday, stoning and confronting police who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas in the most violent and chaotic scenes yet in the challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. One protester was killed and even a Nobel Peace laureate was placed under house arrest after joining demonstrations.
Groups of thousands of protesters, some chanting "out, out, out," defied a ban on any gatherings and turned out at different venues across Cairo, a city of about 18 million people, some marching toward major squares and across scenic Nile bridges. Burning tires sent up plumes of black smoke across the cityscape as the sun set. Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of the country's 28 provinces.
It was a major escalation in the movement that began on Tuesday to demand 82-year-old Mubarak's ouster and vent rage at years of government neglect of rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices. Security officials said protesters ransacked the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling party in the cities of Mansoura north of Cairo and Suez, east of the capital.
Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.
The death brought the toll of those killed in four days of protests to eight.
Internet and cell phone services, at least in Cairo, appeared to be largely cut off since overnight in the most extreme measure so far to try to hamper protesters form organizing. However, that did not prevent tens of thousands from flooding the streets, emboldened by the recent uprising in Tunisia — another North African Arab nation.
"It's time for this government to change," said Amal Ahmed, a 22-year-old protester. "I want a better future for me and my family when I get married."
Egypt is Washington's closest Arab ally, but Mubarak may be losing U.S. support and running out of options to keep his grip on power. The Obama administration has publicly counseled him to introduce reforms and refrain from using violence against the protesters.
The protesters were energized Friday by the return of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the country's leading pro-democracy advocates. He returned to the country Thursday night after a month abroad, declaring he was prepared to lead the opposition to a regime change.
When he joined protesters Friday after noon prayers, police fired water cannons at him and his supporters. They used batons to beat some of ElBaradei's supporters, who surrounded him to protect him.
A soaking wet ElBaradei was trapped inside a mosque while hundreds of riot police laid siege to it, firing tear gas in the streets around so no one could leave. Tear gas canisters set several cars ablaze outside the mosque and several people fainted and suffered burns.
When he returned home police stationed outside told him he was not allowed to leave again.
"We are the ones who will bring change," said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif, one of scores who were with ElBardei. "If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come," he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.
Abeer Ahmed, a 31-year-old woman who showed up for ElBaradei with her toddler, said she has a law degree but makes a living cleaning homes.
"Nothing good is left in the country," she said. "Oppression is growing."
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