The Egyptian Army has intervened in the ongoing clashes between pro and anti Hosni Mubarak supporters in Tahrir square according to reports.
Early on Thursday morning, following a night of violence left five people dead and 836 wounded, the Army, which had previously played a passive role in the protests, were seen forcing Mubarak loyalists out of the Square with tanks.
However, supporters of Mubarak were reported to be doubling back in the direction of Tahrir Square, brandishing knives and sticks.
Tanks were circling the Square and emitting what appeared to be plumes of smoke, presumably in an attempt to create a screen.
It is the first intervention by the Army who had several days ago declared they would not open fire on the Egyptian citizenry, and later removed guns from their tanks.
Observers will be scrutinising this latest development closely to determine whether the Army has decided to side with the anti-Mubarak protesters by ushering the loyalists away from the Square, or if in fact it is merely keeping the two sides apart and in doing so averting further violence.
The latter seems the more likely: on Thursday morning, tanks were reportedly blaring loud music in a bid to drown out the cacophonous chanting of anti-Mubarak protesters.
However, supporters of Mubarak were seen carrying knives and sticks moved back in the direction of Tahrir Square.
Wednesday’s clashes brought about the worst scenes of violence since the protests began some 10 days ago.
Protesters made makeshift clinics to provide first aid to the wounded before sending them to hospital when needed.
“Most of the casualties were the result of stone throwing and attacks with metal rods and sticks. At dawn today there were gunshots,” Health Minister Ahmed Samih Farid said on state television.
“The real casualties taken to hospital were 836, of which 86 are still in hospital and there are five dead.”
The Mubarak loyalists opened fire and threw stones and petrol bombs and protesters in the square barricaded themselves in the square and hurled stones back.
They shielded themselves with metal sheets and other items available in the square and its surrounding shops and buildings.
Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif told Channel 4 News that Mubarak loyalists, who had been absent from anti-Government protests throughout the country 10 days, had suddenly appeared to undermine what is being referred to as a revolution.
Mrs Soueif said: “It was a tried and tested tactic which the Mubarak regime has used before to break up protests and during election time which is to turn loose security personell in plain clothes and thugs who are known to the police.”
The suspicion that Egyptian police officers are spearheading the pro-Mubarak factions who, according to widespread accounts instigated clashes with opposition demonstrators, has been circulating for days.
Mrs Soueif added: “However much they believe in (Mubarak), they shouldn’t be throwing Molotov cocktails at peaceful protesters and they come in with chains, with swords, with knives, with sticks.”
And amid the escalating tensions, the US State Department issued a travel warning for US citizens in Egypt, advising those who want to leave to “immediately” head for the airport.
The Muslim Brotherhood, seen as Egypt’s biggest organised opposition group, said on Thursday that President Mubarak and his government had to resign to avoid a crackdown on protesters if it was allowed stay in power.
“We demand that this regime is overthrown and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions,” the Brotherhood said in a statement broadcast by Al Jazeera.