Egypt crisis: ElBaradei joins mass protests

Cairo: Thousands of anti-government protestors in Egypt on Friday clashed with police who used water cannons against pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei and his supporters as they joined the latest wave of nationwide demonstrations after noon prayers.

Police armed with batons beat some of ElBaradei`s supporters, who surrounded him to protect him, and fired rubber bullets into the crowd and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protestors outside a mosque in Giza square here on the fourth day of demonstrations against 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak`s nearly three-decade rule.

Television stations also reported clashes between thousands of protesters and police in several other major Egyptian cities, including the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Minya and Assiut south of Cairo and al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula. The violence since mass protests erupted on Tuesday has so far claimed seven lives.

At Ramsis square in the heart of the city, thousands of protesters clashed with police as they left the al-Nur mosque after the prayers.

At the upscale Mohandiseen district, at least 10,000 of people were marching toward the city center chanting "down, down with Mubarak."

Internet and cell-phone data services were disrupted across Egypt as authorities used extreme measures to hamper protestors from organizing mass rallies after Friday noon prayers as part of the biggest challenge to the government in decades.

The demonstrations are backed by both the country`s biggest opposition group–the Muslim Brotherhood– and ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and a former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, giving momentum to the protessts. ElBaradei returned to his homeland last night from Austrial capital Vienna.

"It is a critical time in the life of Egypt. I have come to participate with the Egyptian people," 68-year-old ElBaradei said before leaving Cairo airport after his arrival from Vienna.

"We`re still reaching out to the regime to work with them for the process of change. Every Egyptian doesn`t want to see the country going into violence," he said, adding "Our hand is outstretched."

"I wish that we didn`t have to go to the streets to impress on the regime that they need to change," ElBaradei said.

The Muslim Brotherhood said at least five of its leaders and five former members of parliament had been arrested.

The government deployed an elite special operations force in Cairo on Thursday night as violence escalated outside the capital, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to take to the streets after Friday afternoon prayers.

Thousands of black-clad riot police armed with batons and shields were deployed across the city, with the largest concentrations at Tahrir, or Liberation, Square at the heart of the city, where 10,000 protestors gathered for their first demonstration on Tuesday. Mubarak has not been seen in public or heard from directly since Tuesday.

The police, backed by armoured vehicles and fire engines fitted with water cannon, were also deployed in large numbers at Ramsis Square, another flashpoint in central Cairo.

The interior ministry has already warned of "decisive measures" against the protestors demanding Mubarak`s ouster.