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Egypt's military-backed government on Wednesday ordered the police to clear two Cairo protest camps packed with supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, saying they posed a threat to national security and were "terrorizing" citizens.
The move signaled an imminent crackdown against the heavily barricaded sit-ins — one outside a mosque in eastern Cairo and another on the other side of the city near the main Cairo University campus. It also raised the specter of more violence after deadly clashes between police and the Islamist protesters on July 8 and last weekend left more than 130 killed.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad el-Haddad, said the Cabinet's announcement reflected the rule of a "conspiratorial gang" that has no respect for the law. He also dismissed as unfounded claims that the sit-ins posed a threat to security.
Asked if the Brotherhood would voluntarily break up the protest or send women and children home, he told The Associated Press: "This is an open sit-in. We don't have control over the people. We don't have control over them. It is a free choice."
More than 260 people have been killed since Morsi was ousted by the military on July 3, leaving the country divided between those calling for his reinstatement and millions who marched against him and his Muslim Brotherhood in a show of support for the new political order.
Police have been instructed to end the protests "within the law and the constitution," Information Minister Dorreya Sharaf el-Din said in a televised statement, although she did not specify a timeframe.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, said the disbanding of the sit-ins will be carried out in gradual steps according to orders from prosecutors. "I hope they (Morsi supporters) resort to reason" and leave without authorities having to move in, he told the AP in a telephone interview.
An Interior Ministry statement later said that it will study the "appropriate steps" to be taken in the light of available intelligence on the kind of weapons available to the protesters and whether foreigners are in their midst.
The gradual steps, the ministry said, would be a warning to leave the area, use of tear gas if protesters don't leave and finally "legitimate self-defense." It did not elaborate. Police consistently deny allegations that they use live ammunition against protesters.
In a parallel move, prosecutors also referred three top Brotherhood leaders, including its fugitive spiritual leader Mohammed Badie, to trial for allegedly inciting the killing of anti-Morsi protesters last month.
The other two, who already are in detention, are Badie's powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater and senior Brotherhood leader Rashad Bayoumi. They are accused of inciting the killing of at least eight protesters outside the Cairo headquarters of the Brotherhood on the night of June 30 and early the next day. No date has been set for the trial, which will be held before a criminal court.
El-Shater and Bayoumi are in detention along with at least six other Brotherhood leaders and Islamist allies, including the group's former spiritual leader Mahdi Akef and Saad el-Katatni, leader of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice party.
Arrest warrants have been issued for Badie and several other Brotherhood leaders, including stalwarts Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian. The two have been making fiery comments against el-Sissi to the foreign media and at the eastern Cairo sit-in.
Morsi was overthrown after just one year in office after mass rallies in which millions of Egyptians calling for his ouster took to the streets. Last week, millions of Egyptians rallied on the street again to give military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi a mandate to deal with violence and "potential terrorism."
Ibrahim, the Interior Minister, last weekend depicted the two protest encampments as a danger to the public, pointing to nine bodies police have said were found nearby in recent days. Some had been tortured to death, police have said, apparently by members of the sit-ins who believed they were spies.
Interim Vice-President Mohamed ElBaradei on Tuesday implicitly condoned using force against the protesters as a last resort, but cautioned that any such use must be "within a legal framework." The Nobel Peace Laureate and former head of the U.N.'s nuclear agency had been known to oppose the use of force against Morsi's supporters.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.