Egyptian soldiers and police opened fire on supporters of the ousted president early Monday in violence that left at least 40 people killed, including one officer, outside a military building in Cairo where demonstrators had been holding a sit-in, government officials and witnesses said.
There were conflicting accounts of how the violence began. A military spokesman said gunmen attempted to storm the building at dawn, prompting the clashes. Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, meanwhile, said the security forces fired on hundreds of protesters as they performed early morning prayers. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the two accounts.
In chaotic scenes from field hospitals treating the wounded, at least six dead bodies had been laid out on the ground, some with severe wounds, according to footage aired by pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera. The bodies had been draped with an Egyptian flag and pictures of Morsi. Pools of blood covered the floor and doctors struggled to deal with gaping wounds.
A medic from the area, Hesham Agami, said ambulances were unable to transport more than 200 wounded to hospitals because the military had blocked off the roads.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled el-Khatib said initial reports also indicated at least 322 were wounded, although he gave no details on the circumstances of the bloodshed.
Military spokesmen said gunmen opened fire on troops at the building, killing at least five Morsi supporters and one officer.
A spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Mourad Ali, and a witness at the scene said army troops opened fire at dawn on the protesters outside the Republican Guard building, where the protesters believe Morsi has been held by the army since the military pushed him from power on Wednesday. Morsi was initially held there but was later moved to an undisclosed Defense Ministry facility.
Al-Shaimaa Younes, who was at the sit-in, said military troops and police forces opened fire on the protesters during early morning prayers, and that women and children had been among the demonstrators.
"They opened fire with live ammunition and lobbed tear gas," she said by telephone. "There was panic and people started running. I saw people fall."
Egyptian state TV showed images provided by the military of the scene of the sit-in, where scores of protesters were pelting troops with rocks, and setting tires on fire, as troops dressed in riot gear and carrying shields formed lines a few meters (yards) away.
A fire was raging from an apartment in a building overlooking the scene of the clashes. Images showed men throwing spears at the area of the clashes from atop nearby building rooftops. Other protesters were lobbing fire bombs at the troops. It was not clear when the footage was filmed. Security officers were showing cameras bullet casings, and troops were carrying injured colleagues.
Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said initial information indicates that gunmen affiliated with the Brotherhood tried to storm the Republican Guard building shortly after dawn, firing live ammunition and throwing firebombs from a nearby mosque and rooftops. One police officer on the scene was killed, he said.
A statement by the armed forces published on the state news agency said "an armed terrorist group" tried to storm the Republican Guard building, killing one officer and seriously wounding six. The statement said the forces arrested 200 attackers, armed with guns and ammunition.
Ali, the Brotherhood spokesman, dismissed the military's version, saying the protesters — including women and children — didn't attack the troops. He said the military had warned protesters it will break up the sit-in.
Morsi supporters have been holding rallies and a sit-in outside the Republican Guard building since the military deposed Morsi last week during massive protests against him. The military chief replaced Morsi with an interim president until presidential elections are held. The transition plan is backed by liberal and secular opponents of Morsi, and had been also supported by the ultraconservative Islamist Al-Nour party and both Muslim and Christian religious leaders.
Soon after the attack report, however, Al-Nour party spokesman Nader Bakkar said on his Twitter account his party is withdrawing its support for the transition plan in response to the "massacre."
Morsi's supporters refuse to recognize the change in leadership and insist Morsi be reinstated, and have vowed to continue their sit-ins outside the Republican Guard building as well as at a nearby mosque.
Morsi's opponents are also holding rival rallies. They say the former president lost his legitimacy by mismanaging the country and not ruling democratically, leading to a mass revolt that began June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi's assumption of power.