CAIRO -- The shooting started during morning prayers.
Soldiers and security forces opened fire on an encampment of anti-military protesters outside the barricades at the Republican Guard headquarters. Witnesses said demonstrators fled through tear gas and shotgun pellets, the dead and wounded ferried away by motorcycles, ambulances and in the arms of relatives.
"We were praying, and at 3:30 a.m. we were surprised by gun fire and tear gas all around us,” said Mahmoud Mohamed, a lawyer who was shot in the arm. "We had women and children with us. The shooting went on for a long time. They didn’t give us a chance to retreat. They met us from every direction."
It is not clear what led to the onslaught that killed at least 42 people and injured hundreds. The protesters, mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters demanding the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, said they were in the third day of a sit-in when they were attacked by army and Interior Ministry forces.
A military statement said a "terrorist group" attempted to storm the Republican Guard facility, killing one soldier and wounding 40.
Images of the dead lying beneath sheets and national flags inflamed a nation already on the brink of chaos. The military coup that deposed Morsi last week infuriated his Brotherhood supporters, who have vowed not to leave the streets until the president, believed to be held by the Republican Guard, returns to office.
"While we prayed, they shot us,” said Fatma Alzomor, who wailed near the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque about two miles away from the Republican Guard headquarters. “Witness free world, what is happening. We are being sprayed with blood. You must hear me.”
A man standing nearby told a journalist: “Write this: Today, freedom has been killed.”
Men wearing hard hats and carrying sticks, clubs and knives guarded the street leading to the mosque, where over the last week thousands of Morsi supporters have camped in tents. Boys carried shields, bandaged men curled in the shade, women wept from behind face veils and the summer heat of a new day rose through the murmurs of clerics.
“I was praying,” said Dr. Ismail Hashish, a surgeon at a makeshift field hospital. “We heard screams from the stage of the mosque, telling the protesters not to go to the Republican Guard. I myself have seen nine dead. We have a huge number of cases. A lot of gunshot wounds to the chest and head. The casualties became much greater than what we could handle.”
The incident further jolted the nation’s political disarray.
The military-installed president and disparate political parties have yet to agree on a prime minister. The killings also created a new danger for the military after the ultraconservative Salafis in the prominent Nour Party withdrew from negotiations for a coalition government. Nour was an adversary of the Brotherhood, but now, under pressure from Islamists, may move closer to the group.
Opposition figures who backed the coup were careful in how they worded statements on Monday’s attack. “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned. Independent Investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a Morsi foe and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said on his official Twitter account.
The Brotherhood was shaken and enraged. After one year of controlling the government, it has reverted back to its old role as the opposition under growing pressure from a military determined to clip its influence even as the economy tumbles and crime and social unrest spread.
“What happened today is a massacre,” Essam Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice political party, said outside the field hospital. “They [the military] brought this on themselves. To this chaos there is no exit unless Mohamed Morsi returns to office. There is no exit. ... Our blood will overcome their weapons.”ALSO:
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.