CAIRO — Barely 12 hours after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he'd step down at the end of his term, a club-wielding mob chanting his name overwhelmed pro-democracy protesters in Tahrir Square on Wednesday, hurling stones and gasoline bombs at the people who've demanded that Mubarak resign immediately after nearly 30 years in power.
The apparently choreographed onslaught — the pro-Mubarak forces had massed outside the square for hours and came equipped with slogans and knives — opened a violent new chapter in Egypt's nine-day-old uprising and defied President Obama's call for a transition to a new government.
Veteran international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, now working for ABC News, said she witnessed Mubarak supporters arriving at Cairo's Tahrir Square in what appeared to be a coordinated fashion in the early afternoon and sensed the mood changing.
"The thing about this is you can smell it," she said. "I just wondered what this was going to bode for the day."
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She soon found out. She was trying to interview a Mubarak supporter when she was surrounded by several young men shouting that "we hate Americans" and "go to hell."
When it was clear the situation wouldn't improve, Amanpour and her ABC colleagues got in a car to leave. The car was surrounded by men banging on the sides and windows, and a rock was thrown through the windshield, shattering glass on the occupants. They escaped without injury.
The running battles continued for hours in the shadow of the famed Egyptian Museum, home to the country's priceless antiquities, whose rooftop one Mubarak supporter briefly used to lob Molotov cocktails at demonstrators.
By midnight it appeared that the democracy movement had regained control of the downtown Cairo square it's occupied since Jan. 25. Demonstrators set two vehicles ablaze next to the museum and formed a human barricade to block the Mubarak supporters, many of whom retreated onto a nearby bridge, still carrying machetes and rocks.
A day earlier, Tahrir Square, whose name means "liberation," had been the site of the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in memory here, with hundreds of thousands of people, many of them waving Egyptian flags, gathering for a festive day of songs and chants.
On Wednesday, pro-Mubarak forces waving their own Egyptian flags laid siege to the square, some riding horses and camels, in an attempt to seize the democracy movement's main symbols in an outburst of violence.
Death toll disputed
Egyptian authorities said that four people died and more than 600 were wounded, but news reports suggested the toll was higher. The Al Arabiya satellite channel reported multiple dead bodies and said one of its reporters was missing. Live television images showed people rushing from the scene with bloodied limbs and skulls, some wounded by chunks of concrete that demonstrators broke loose from a construction site and hurled at the other side.
The Egyptian crisis has entered an uncertain and dangerous new phase, with Mubarak intent on serving until elections that are scheduled for next fall and activists vowing not to leave the streets until he leaves office. The stakes for both rose sharply in Wednesday's melee, because some activists fear that if they stand down, the regime will target them for reprisals.
The Mubarak supporters were openly hostile to reporters, with some attacking a CNN camera crew and a young woman in a head scarf trying to force a camera from a McClatchy reporter's hands.
CNN's Anderson Cooper said he, a producer and camera operator were set upon by people who began punching them and trying to break their camera. Another CNN reporter, Hala Gorani, said she was shoved against a fence when demonstrators rode in on horses and camels, and feared she was going to get trampled.
"This is incredibly fast-moving," Cooper said. "I've been in mobs before and I've been in riots, but I've never had it turn so quickly."
Egyptian soldiers let the clashes go on for several hours before they moved to separate the two sides, parking trucks at opposite ends of the square and firing warning shots into the air. By nightfall, soldiers used water cannons to douse fires as both sides continued to square off on roads leading from the square, and the Interior Ministry ordered civilians to evacuate the square.
Egyptian state television referred to the Mubarak supporters as "pro-stability" demonstrators, but there were signs that they'd been unleashed by the government. Al-Jazeera aired images of seized identification cards that identified some as police officers. Many Egyptians regard the police as a cudgel of the regime.