CAIRO -- Egypt's security forces on Wednesday stormed camps of protesters loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi in a wave of gunfire and tear gas that set off fighting throughout the country. At least 278 people were dead, and more than 2,200 injured, on the deadliest day since the 2011 uprising.
By evening, bulldozers moved into the camps. The main site, a virtual city that had housed thousands in Cairo's Rabaa section, was set afire. Much of the nation was under a curfew and a state of emergency.
"Rabaa is ashes," said Jihad Khalid, 20, a protester who had lost friends and was at the Rabaa field hospital when police arrived. "The police were letting women leave and arresting men. And then a police officer told me, 'Leave,' and I said, 'I am not leaving.' He said, 'You know I can kill you right now.' "
The clashes once again threw the country and its governance into a state of upheaval.
Nobel laureate and liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been vice president of foreign affairs, resigned from the military-named government, saying he opposed the crackdown on Morsi supporters. "I cannot be responsible for one drop of blood," Mr. ElBaradei said in a statement, adding that he thought the government had other means to clear the sites, where Morsi supporters had conducted sit-ins for six weeks.
The government defended its actions, claiming its forces had been attacked and had used only tear gas, not live ammunition. Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the "least amount of force" was used. He banned future sit-ins.
"This state of mayhem and insecurity has come to an end," said Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who praised police for what he called their restraint.
Health Ministry officials said 235 people had been killed, plus at least 43 police officers, and more than 2,200 people had been injured.
The moves were widely criticized in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
"The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protesters in Egypt," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday from Martha's Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was vacationing. "We extend our condolences to the families of those who have been killed, and to the injured. We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint, and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens, just as we have urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully."
The government effort to clear the sites, which pitted armed forces against citizens often armed only with rocks, produced widespread carnage. Near the larger sit-in site, in Rabaa, it was impossible to walk a few feet without seeing an injured man, hearing a woman's wails or smelling the stench of tear gas.
There were conflicting reports that the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Khairat el-Shater and her husband had been killed in Rabaa. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party leader, Mohamed el-Beltagy, confirmed that his daughter Asmaa, 17, was among those killed.
Egyptian state television later reported that Mr. Beltagy was one of eight Brotherhood leaders arrested Wednesday, though Mr. Ibrahim, the interior minister, denied that. The government already had arrested Mr. Shater.
Among those killed at Rabaa were at least two journalists, including Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, 61, a 15-year veteran of the British station. Several other journalists were arrested or threatened when they tried to cover the events.
In Rabaa, protesters had positioned cars as barricades. About 6 a.m., witnesses said, military and police vehicles began surrounding the site, which comprised several blocks of numbered tents, bathrooms and kitchens for the thousands living there. Around 7 a.m., the forces threw tear gas into the crowds, said Mohammed el-Nagger, 64, a carpenter who has been at the site since June 28. Residents started to run out of the tents, he said.
"Once the people went out into the open, they started shooting," said Mr. Nagger, who was struck in the ankle. His son, Kamel, 35, said: "In front of my eyes, I saw someone shot. Another man went to help him, and he was shot, too. They were lying on top of each other."
At least 10 people were killed at the second, smaller sit-in at Nahda, near Cairo University.
Tear gas and gunfire bursts continued through the day. The violence spread through the nation. At least 21 churches were set ablaze, along with police stations.
With many Cairo roads blocked in what appeared to be a government effort to stop protesters from coming to the sit-in sites, supporters launched protests in their neighborhoods.
In Faiyom, an impoverished governorate south of Cairo that was fiercely loyal to Mr. Morsi, at least 17 died. Clashes also erupted in Ismailia in the Nile Delta, killing at least 15, and the restive Sinai. Morsi supporters said at least one child was killed.
The government declared a monthlong state of emergency in 14 of Egypt's 27 provinces, effectively allowing security forces to clear the streets without public oversight. From 4 p.m., when it announced the state of emergency, until 7 p.m., when the curfew started, the forces allowed some protesters to leave sit-in sites but arrested nearly 600 others.
First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM