Egypt says 36 killed in custody

Amid pause in street battles, military condemns Islamists


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CAIRO -- The Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces killed 36 Islamists in its custody Sunday, as the military leaders and the country's Islamists vowed to keep up their fight over Egypt's future.

The news of the deaths came on a day in which there appeared to be a pause in the street battles that have claimed more than 1,000 lives in recent days, most of them Islamists and their supporters gunned down by security forces. The Islamists took measures Sunday to avoid confrontations, including canceling several protests over the ouster of a democratically elected Islamist-led government.

While confirming the killings of the detainees Sunday, the Ministry of the Interior said the deaths were the consequence of an escape attempt by Islamist prisoners. But officials of the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, described the deaths as "assassinations," and said the victims, which it said numbered 52, had been shot and tear-gassed through the windows of the locked prison van.

The government offered conflicting details throughout the day, once saying the detainees had suffocated in the van from tear gas to suppress an escape attempt, but later insisting the Islamists died in a prison where they were taken.

In either case, the incident was the fourth mass killing of civilians since the military took control on July 3, but the first time those killed were in government custody at the time.

The Islamists, followers of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, have vowed to continue their protests, both against the military's July 3 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi -- prompted by millions who took to the street demanding he step down -- and the violence of recent days that started with the bloody crackdown of Brotherhood sit-ins.

Although it appeared that security forces were more restrained Sunday -- with no immediate reports of killings in the streets -- Maj. Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the country's military leader, spoke out on national television in defiant and uncompromising tones, condemning the Islamists again as "terrorists," but promising to restore democracy to the country.

The government has been pursuing a relentless campaign to paint the Islamists as pursuing violence, and has increasingly lashed out at journalists who do not echo that line, especially the foreign media.

Acknowledging but rejecting the widespread criticism in Egypt and worldwide of the security forces' actions, the general "noted that citizens invited the armed forces to deal with terrorism, which was a message to the world and the foreign media, who denied millions of Egyptians their free will and their true desire to change."

In a sign of increasing frustration with the government, the European Union, an important trading partner for Egypt, announced Sunday that it would "urgently review" its relations with the country because of the bloodshed. The EU said the interim government bore the responsibility for bringing violence to an end.

The Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would conduct nine protest marches Sunday in and around Cairo as part of its "week of departure" campaign that began Friday to protest the military's deposing of Mr. Morsi. All but three of the marches were canceled, and even those were re-routed to avoid snipers, along with bands of pro-government thugs, police and the military, which manned tanks on the streets, the Brotherhood said.

The authorities, too, appeared to avoid aggressively enforcing martial law provisions that would have led to clashes with the protesters.

Even on Saturday, which had seemed relatively quiet, 79 people were killed in violence around Egypt, according to the government press agency, MENA, in an announcement Sunday. It provided few details.

Brotherhood leaders in particular have paid a heavy price, with the children of many top officials among the dead. They include Asmaa el-Beltagy, the son of a senior Brotherhood leader, Mohammed el-Beltagy, killed at Rabaa square Wednesday; Ammar Badie, 38, son of Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badie, shot during clashes Friday in Ramses Square; and Habiba Abd el-Aziz, 26, the daughter of Ahmed Abd el-Aziz, the media consultant to Mr. Morsi, killed at Rabaa from a bullet wound to the head on Wednesday.

There were scant details on the prison killings Sunday, and no explanation for why the victims were inside a prison van and had reportedly taken a prison official hostage.

The Ministry of the Interior issued conflicting and confusing accounts of what had happened, at one point claiming the prisoners had taken a guard hostage, then saying militants attacked the prison van to free the prisoners, who were killed in the process, and then saying that tear gas used to suppress the escape caused the prisoners to suffocate. Later, the ministry claimed the deaths happened in the prison, not in the van.

The violence came a day after a blistering speech in support of the Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey's Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who likened Egypt's military leader, Gen. Sissi, to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"There are currently two paths in Egypt: those who follow the pharaoh, and those who follow Moses," Mr. Erdogan said. Speaking before the EU's announcement of a review of relations, he also criticized other countries' position regarding the military regime.

"The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the European Union have no face left to look at in the mirror," he said.

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