CAIRO — Groups of men armed with knives and sticks attacked protesters trying to march to the headquarters of Egypt's military rulers Saturday, setting off fierce street clashes.
The clashes come as tensions have been rising between the military council that took control of the country after a popular uprising forced ex-President Hosni Mubarak and activists who want them to move faster in bringing former regime officials to justice and setting a date for the transition to civilian rule.
A crowd estimated at around 10,000 people set out from downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square but was stopped from reaching the military headquarters in the eastern Abbasiyah neighborhood by a line of army barricades. Along the way, they chanted slogans against the military council's delay in implementing their demands.
Bands of men armed with knives and sticks set upon them from side roads, setting off pitched street battles in which both sides threw punches and hurled rocks. Gunfire was heard, but it was unclear who was shooting.
It was not clear who the attackers were. Similar groups of men have tried to break up other protest rallies, and Mubarak's regime often used hired thugs to attack protesters. Some witnesses said they might have been residents or shopkeepers angry at the loss of business as a result of the protests.
Hours before the march, the head of the ruling military council praised the youth who led the uprising that toppled Mubarak in an apparent effort to diffuse the growing hostilities between activists and the army.
Many protesters have grown distrustful of the military rulers who assumed control of the country on Feb. 11. Critics accuse the generals of dragging their feet in bringing former regime officials to trial and purging the government of Mubarak loyalists as well as trying civilians in military courts.
Saturday's march was the second consecutive day that protesters tried to reach the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. On Friday, crowds tried to reach the building to denounce the purported beatings of demonstrators by military forces during another rally in the city of Alexandria.
The army quickly issued a statement denying the use of violence against protesters and accusing activists of trying to divide the country. "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urges the public to exercise caution and not to be drawn into this suspicious plot that aims to undermine Egypt's stability," the statement said in unusually strong language.
The head of the council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, tried to soften the tone in an address Saturday on state TV. He called the youth activists "a great product of Egyptian soil, who belong to an ancient people, adopted noble principles, confirmed their nationalistic sense and realized their responsibility as Egypt's youth to progress and make history."
He also appealed for national unity.
"Holding together our internal front and keeping it strong is a national necessity, so we can face the challenges and difficulties in the nation's path, to realize where we are going and how to move toward a safe and secure future," Tantawi said.
His remarks were made during a speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1952 military coup that toppled Egypt's monarchy.
The military council has promised to hand over power to an elected civilian government within six months. Parliamentary elections are now set for October or November, followed by presidential elections, likely next year.
Activists frustrated with the slow pace of change have continued to protest, forcing a change to the interim government and a change in the leadership of the police force. A few hundred have been camped out in Tahrir Square since earlier this month to pressure the military to bring those accused of killing the protesters during the 18-day uprising to trial.
The protesters want the military rulers to move faster in bringing former regime officials to trial and end military trials for civilians. They also seek the resignation of the state prosecutor and a date for the transition to civilian rule.
So far, only one low-ranking policeman has been charged in absentia for killing protesters. Nearly 900 were killed in the early days of the uprising.
In a statement released on its Facebook page, the council statement accused activists of seeking to drive a wedge between the people and the military. It singled out the April 6 movement, one of the largest groups behind the protests that forced Mubarak to step down.
Activists quickly rebuffed the statement with one of their own, saying the army rejects all criticism of how it is ruling the country.
Mohammed Adel, an April 6 spokesman, said "defaming" the group is reminiscent of the language used by the previous regime against its opponents. "It is the army that is driving a wedge between it and the people by accusing others of treason," he said.
Protesters in Alexandria insisted the military used force against them at Friday's demonstration.
Nour al-Zorba, a protester, said they were first attacked by men wielding knives. Protesters chased those attackers away, but then soldiers began chasing them, detaining some and beating others to the ground, he said.
A few protesters managed to enter the military headquarters and tried to speak to the site's commander.
One woman, Amira Nabil, who went inside the headquarters said she was beaten and dragged by her feet, and punched in the stomach.
Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard contributed to this report.