CAIRO — Egyptian police clashed with anti-government protesters for a fifth day in central Cairo Wednesday as a rights group raised the overall death toll from the ongoing unrest to at least 38. The United Nations strongly condemned what it called the use of excessive force by security forces.
The clashes resumed despite a promise by Egypt's military ruler to speed up a presidential election to the first half of next year, a concession swiftly rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. The military previously floated late next year or early 2013 as the likely date for the vote, the last step in the process of transferring power to a civilian government.
The standoff has plunged the country deeper into crisis less than a week before parliamentary elections, the first since the ouster nine months ago of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi tried to defuse tensions with his address late Tuesday, but he did not set a date for handing authority to a civilian government, instead offering a referendum on the immediate return of the armed forces to their barracks.
The Tahrir crowd, along with protesters in a string of other cities across the nation, want Tantawi to step down immediately in favor of an interim civilian council to run the nation's affairs until elections for a new parliament and president are held.
Street battles have centered around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, near the iconic square, with police and army troops using tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the protesters from storming the ministry, a sprawling complex that has for long been associated with the hated police and Mubarak's former regime.
The protesters, who have withstood tear gas and beatings, say they have no wish to storm the ministry but were trying to keep the police and army from moving on Tahrir Square.
Elnadeem Center, an Egyptian rights group known for its careful research of victims of police violence, said late Tuesday that the number of protesters killed in clashes nationwide since Saturday is 38, nine more than the Health Ministry's death toll. The clashes also have left at least 2,000 protesters wounded, mostly from gas inhalation or injuries caused by rubber bullets fired by the army and the police. The police deny using live ammunition.
Shady el-Nagar, a doctor in one of Tahrir's field hospitals, said three bodies arrived in the facility on Wednesday. All three had bullet wounds. "We don't know if these were caused by live ammunition or pellets because pellets can be deadly when fired from a short distance," he said.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, deplored the role of Egypt's military and security forces in attempting to suppress protesters during the ongoing unrest.
"Some of the images coming out of Tahrir, including the brutal beating of already subdued protesters, are deeply shocking, as are the reports of unarmed protesters being shot in the head," Pillay said. "There should be a prompt, impartial and independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses that have taken place should be ensured."
She said the actions of the military and police were inflaming the situation, prompting more people to join the protests. "The more they see fellow protesters being carted away in ambulances, the more determined and energized they become."
The five days of clashes are the longest spate of uninterrupted violence since the 18-day uprising that toppled the former regime in February, deepening the country's economic and security woes. the unrest also threatens to cloud the country's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to begin on Monday.
In his address, Tantawi rejected all criticism of the military's handling of the transitional period and sought to cast himself and the generals on the military council he heads as the nation's foremost patriots. Significantly, he did not mention the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square or elsewhere in the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest and best organized group, is not taking part in the ongoing protests in a move that is widely interpreted to be a reflection of its desire not to do anything that could derail a parliamentary election it is sure to dominate.
Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters, however, have defied the leadership and joined the crowds on the square.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.