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CAIRO — More than 200 people and police were killed in clashes across the country that erupted Wednesday when Egyptian security forces cleared out thousands of people at sit-ins who were demanding the return of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
The Egyptian Health Ministry says 235 civilians died and more than 1,000 were injured in the clashes after which Egypt's interim president declared a state of emergency and nighttime curfew.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said 43 policemen also died in the assault. He said Morsi supporters attacked 21 police stations and seven Coptic Christian churches across the nation, and assaulted the Finance Ministry in Cairo.
The streets were cleared of most people by nightfall after the military imposed a curfew. At the height of the assault, smoke filled the sky in Cairo from fires that were smoldering in the streets at two sit-ins. The sit-in areas were largely abandoned, heaped with charred tent poles and tarps.
A protester at the Rabaa Al-Awadiya camp said he saw snipers and police with machine guns firing at people.
"People are dying — women, children," said Hesham Al Ashry, a pro-Morsi protester who follows hard-line Islamic ideology, speaking frantically from inside the sit-in shortly after the assault began.
Vice President Mohammed El Baradei announced his resignation, saying he "cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."
Most shops in Cairo shut their doors and the streets were almost entirely vacant of the throng of vehicles that typically clog the capital. Trains stopped operating and banks were closed as police chased protesters accused of instigating violence.
"All the people are afraid," said taxi driver Korolos Gad, whipping his car through the empty streets and pointing out the military tanks that deployed in the city. "After a while, things will be fine."
The military blocked roads leading to the smaller Nahda sit-in and cordoned off the bridge that leads to Tahrir Square. Downtown, near another entrance to the square, tanks lined a small side street in front of the Egyptian Museum.
Protesters, many of whom were members of Morsi's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, told reporters that government forces used live fire against them in the morning when they refused to leave. Britain's Sky News confirmed that one of its cameramen was killed in the clashes.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said only tear gas was used and that the gunfire broke out when people in the sit-ins stared firing, but protesters insisted it was a massacre.
Police and army helicopters hovered over both sites. The military said Army troops did not take part in the clearing out of the two sit-ins but provided security at both spots.
Bearded men could be seen handcuffed and sitting along sidewalks not far from the larger protest camp outside the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo's Nasr City. At least 200 people have been arrested at the two camps, the Ministry has said.
The smaller of the two sit-ins, at Nahda Square, had been cleared and sealed off by security forces, according to witness reports.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo closed its consular services starting at 1 p.m. local time as retaliatory attacks erupted across the country. Morsi, the nation's first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military July 3 after he forced through changes to the constitution that appeared to curtail freedoms, ignored the rulings of the Supreme Court and encouraged violence against his opponents.
There was protests and clashes outside Cairo as well as between demonstrators and security forces, according to witnesses and local news reports.
Brotherhood loyalists torched a church in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag and set fire to police vehicles in Assuit. In Suez, they blocked a road by setting car tires on fire, the state news agency said. Police stations across the country were attacked, and in Fayoum, Morsi supporters set fire to a Christian youth center, local press reports said.
"The people of Egypt will take to every square in Egypt — Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta and in Upper Egypt," said Mohammed Attiya, a supporter of Morsi as he went to a protest in the Nile Delta. "They will be there until they end the coup."
Supporters of Morsi have maintained the two main Cairo sit-ins for over a month despite threats by authorities that they will be dispersed by security forces. Protesters said they would not leave and demanded Morsi's reinstatement.
"People elected Morsi and voted for the constitution and the parliament," said Abou Zeid Badr, 30, at the Nahda sit-in Tuesday night. "And these votes were crushed by the military."
Al Ashry said that the United States, which says the military moved to restore democracy and not take over the country, must intervene.
"They have to be clear as soon as possible that this is a military, bloody coup," he said amid sounds of gunfire. "If the United States does not take a clear stance, there will be no embassy here and no Americans anywhere in the Middle East. Tell them to wake up and say: This is a military coup."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the operation a "serious blow" to efforts in Egypt to get all factions in the county to agree on a democratic future. The interim government has been working to set up new elections, though the Brotherhood has refused to participate.
Kerry, who spoke with Egypt's foreign minister Wednesday, said imposition of "martial law" through the state of emergency must end quickly to prevent further violence.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the Obama administration must take a much stronger hand in Egypt by forcing the military to move quickly on a new election and to stop "leading from behind."
"This is a test of American leadership," he said. "Obama's foreign policy is not working."
Analysts said the situation will not be resolved by crackdowns. They say the interim government must take steps that the majority of Egyptians would support, such as measures to boost employment and incomes. Egypt's economy has been ruined by the unrest, and tourism, one of the country's major industries, has fallen dramatically.
"The deep roots of the crisis need to be addressed and what we're seeing is the temporary manifestation of the anger of the Muslim Brotherhood," said political analyst Mazen Hassan, in Cairo. "It will be a mistake to think (authorities) can end this crisis by dispersing them."
Unlike sit-ins over the past two and a half years, since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, authorities in early August called the pro-Morsi camps a threat to national security.
The sit-ins were also more fortified than any previous protest camps, likely making it more difficult for security to break them up and creating a landscape that could lead to more casualties, Hassan said. The Rabaa camp was protected by several sets of walls made from pavement stones and piles of sandbags, which also secured the perimeter of the Nahda sit-in.
Human rights groups had warned against forcefully dispersing the camps and foreign diplomats over the past few weeks flooded into the capital to help resolve the crisis. Authorities, however, said that international effort failed.
Over the past six weeks, the sit-ins grew into self-sufficient hamlets. Protesters created extensive security networks, with volunteers at Nahda Square checking identification cards, searching cameras and cars and seeking to weed out secret police. If suspects were caught, they were forced to give testimony and a copy of their ID, Ghaffar said.
Demonstrators stayed in tents made from wooden frames, drew electricity from lamp posts, built restrooms, established a garbage collection network and hosted organized activities including soccer games at the Rabaa sit-in. Meals were distributed and makeshift hospitals were established.
"People gave us money — donations — or medicine, and we also bought supplies," said Mohammed Ads, a medical student who volunteered at an emergency hospital established Tuesday in Rabaa Al-Adawiya in anticipation of the looming need to treat the wounded.