Egyptian demonstrators burned cars and barricaded themselves with barbed wire inside a central Cairo square Saturday, demanding the resignation of the military's head after troops violently dispersed an overnight protest, killing two people and injuring 71.

Hundreds of soldiers beat protesters with clubs and fired into the air in the pre-dawn raid on Cairo's Tahrir Square in a sign of the rising tensions between Egypt's ruling military and protesters.

Armed with sticks and other makeshift weapons, the protesters vowed not to leave until the defence minister, the titular head of state, has resigned.

Other developments in the region:

  • Yemen:  For the second straight day, hundreds of thousands of protesters are demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The death of four protesters Friday in the southern city of Taiz has become a rallying cry across the country.
  • Syria: Security forces fired live ammunition on Saturday, wounding several people in Daraa, to disperse a funeral march for some of the 37 people killed a day earlier in the single bloodiest day of the country's three-week anti-government uprising.  Early in the day, forces also fired on hundreds of protesters in the key port city of Latakia. 
  • Bahrain: Authorities on Saturday detained and beat a prominent human rights activist as part of widespread crackdown on the opposition, a Bahraini human rights group and the man's relatives said. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained Saturday in a pre-dawn raid. 

The soldiers swept into the square around 3 a.m. local time and waded into a tent camp in the centre where protesters had formed a human cordon to protect several army officers who had joined their demonstration in defiance of their superiors.

Ali Mustafa, a car mechanic who was guarding the "free soldiers" tent, said that he saw the army stab one of the officers with his bayonet, pointing to a section of pavement stained with blood under a small pile of garbage and food remains.

Another protester was shot dead, said Ahmed Gamal, who was there overnight. He added that he saw at least two others severely injured by live ammunition.

The troops dragged an unknown number of protesters away, throwing them into police trucks, eyewitnesses said.

"I saw women being slapped in the face, women being kicked," cried one female protester, who took refuge in a nearby mosque.

'Outlaws' blamed

The military issued a statement afterward blaming "outlaws" for rioting and violating the country's 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, and asserted that no one was harmed or arrested.

"The armed forces stress that they will not tolerate any acts of rioting or any act that harms the interest of the country and the people," it said.

Black smoke rose in the sky as the sun came up in Cairo, after three vehicles, including two troops carriers, were set on fire.

The square was filled with shattered glass, stones and debris from the fighting, in a scene reminiscent of the protests in January that brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The glass storefront of a KFC on the square was also smashed.

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Tens of thousands called for ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to be put on trial during a protest in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)

"We are staging a sit-in until the field marshal is prosecuted," said Anas Esmat, a 22-year-old university student in the square as protesters dragged debris and barbed wire to seal off the streets leading into the square.

"The people want the fall of the field marshal," chanted protesters, in a variation on the chant that has become famous across the Middle East with protests calling for regime change.

"Tantawi is Mubarak and Mubarak is Tantawi," went another chant, explicitly equating Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister, with the president who once appointed him.

The clashes came hours after hundreds of thousands massed in Tahrir Square on Friday in one of the biggest protests in weeks, demanding that the military prosecute ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his family for alleged corruption.

Mistrust of military growing

The rally was a show of the increasing impatience and mistrust that many Egyptians feel toward the military, which took over when Mubarak was forced out of office on Feb. 11. Some protesters accuse the military leadership of protecting Mubarak — a former military man himself — and more broadly, many are unclear on the army's intentions in the country's transition.

More than in previous protests, chants and banners Friday directly criticized the military's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Tantawi, a former Mubarak loyalist.

A number of army officers in uniform joined the protesters, some of them accusing the Supreme Council of corruption in speeches to the crowd. After dark, hundreds of protesters remained in the square, intending to camp out with the officers.

Before the pre-dawn assault, military police tried several times to move in and detain the officers but were pushed back by protesters. At one point, protesters pushed and shoved an army general, tearing his cap from his head.

After the attack in the early hours of the morning, the scene was chaotic. Inside the mosque, families who had camped out in the protest tent searched for children who got lost in the mayhem.

'We aren't leaving'

Outside, protesters scuffled with soldiers on side streets, chanting, "Marshal, tell your soldiers, we aren't leaving."

Near the famed Egyptian Museum, which overlooks the square, protesters trying to flee were blocked by soldiers, who hit them and knocked them to the ground before dragging them away.

"I saw them detain a bunch at the museum. They were beating some pretty badly," said one protester, Loai Nagati.

The confrontation was a sharp contrast to the warmth protesters expressed toward the military during the 18-day wave of mass demonstrations that led to Mubarak's ouster and in the days immediately following. Many praised the military for refusing to fire on protesters, and welcomed the army for stepping in to rule.

But tensions have since grown. Reports have emerged of some protesters arrested and tortured by the military in past weeks.

Anger has also grown over the failure so far to prosecute Mubarak and his family.

Corruption was widespread under Mubarak's 29-year-rule, and resentment particularly accelerated in the last years of his rule, as his son Gamal — an investment banker-turned-politician — rose to prominence and brought into power a group of millionaire tycoons who implemented a program of economic liberalization. Several of those businessmen-politicians are now under investigation for allegedly using their positions to amass personal fortunes.