Wednesday October 18th, 2017 11:37PM

EU diplomat in Egypt to mediate amid high tensions

By The Associated Press
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CAIRO - Europe's top diplomat urged Egypt's government to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood as she worked Monday to mediate an end to the country's increasingly bloody crisis, while the mainly Islamist protesters calling for the return of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi massed for more protests.

It was European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's second visit to Cairo since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was toppled nearly a month ago, underscoring the urgency felt after violence that has killed more than 260 people. Near-daily street battles have all but dashed hopes of political reconciliation in the deeply divided country.

International concern spiked after at least 83 Morsi supporters were killed in clashes outside their Cairo sit-in to demand his return to power early Saturday. Human Rights Watch and field doctors interviewed by The Associated Press said many were killed by gunshots to the head and chest. The Interior Ministry its policemen only fired tear gas, though witnesses say security forces also used live ammunition and birdshot.

Security officials said Monday that a police captain died of wounds sustained during those clashes after being hit in the eye with birdshot from protesters. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The clashes, which the Muslim Brotherhood has described as a "massacre," came after millions took the streets to show their support for military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The mass turnout followed a call from el-Sissi, who also is defense minister, for rallies to give him a mandate to deal with violence and "potential terrorism" - a thinly veiled reference to expected crackdowns on Morsi supporters who are holding sit-in camps in Cairo.

The military, led by el-Sissi, pushed Morsi from power July 3 after days of mass protests by millions of Egyptians demanding that the president step down after a year in office.

After the gruesome clashes, 10 prominent local rights groups called for the dismissal of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim, the only Morsi appointee to remain in office. The groups, which include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, also said that until now and during Morsi's rule, his Brotherhood supporters have engaged in political violence, torture and assaults on peaceful protesters, artists, media personnel and rights workers.

"The political circumstances of the massacre are well known, but the common denominator between it and other similar incidents is the lack of real accountability for the perpetrators of past killings, assassinations, and torture," the rights groups said.

Morsi's Brotherhood group and its Islamist allies have rejected the military-appointed leaders who replaced him. Meanwhile, the interim leadership is pushing ahead with a fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by early next year.

Though security officials accuse the Brotherhood's top leaders of inciting their supporters to attack police as a form of "martyrdom," the group and its allies say the army and police are carrying out the same brutal tactics that the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak had set out to eradicate.

Undeterred by the weekend's bloodshed, the Brotherhood gathered supporters for more rallies outside security facilities on Monday evening during which they plan to carry empty coffins as a symbol of their dead. They have also called for another round of mass protests Tuesday under the banner "Martyrs of the Coup," and have set up a tent a block away from their main sit-in for prayers for those killed over the weekend.

The Interior Ministry has vowed to take decisive action against anyone who violates state property, raising fears of more bloodshed.

In a bid to try to mediate a solution to the crisis, the EU foreign policy chief met with el-Sissi, Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei and interim President Adly Mansour. She has also met with members of grassroots youth-led protest groups such as April 6 and Tamarod.

The Brotherhood's political wing says four of its members and Morsi's ex-prime minister, Hesham Kandil, were holding talks with Ashton as well.

After meeting with Ashton, Mahmoud Badr of Tamarod said he asked her to condemn all armed sit-ins.

"We don't know how responsive the Brotherhood are to this," he said. "We have no intention of going back one step... they must breakup these sit-ins and hand in their wanted leaders."

Ashton said she was going to speak to all sides to reinforce that "there must be a fully inclusive transition process, taking in all political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood."

"I will also repeat my call to end all violence. I deeply deplore the loss of life," she said in a statement before her arrival.

One of the thorniest issues toward reconciliation post-coup is the arrest of several Brotherhood leaders and other prominent Islamists since Morsi's ouster. The circle of those in custody expanded Sunday after authorities arrested two figures from the Brotherhood-allied Wasat Party and took them to the capital's Tora prison. The party condemned the arrest of its leaders, saying such measures exacerbate the crisis and add new obstacles to efforts to build bridges.

Morsi himself has been held incommunicado by the military at an undisclosed military facility. Last week prosecutors announced they had launched an investigation into the ousted president on charges of murder and conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas to carry out an attack on a prison during the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The jailbreak allegedly led to the deaths of inmates and broke Morsi and around 30 other members of the group out of detention.

The president's spokesman Ahmed el-Musalamani said "Morsi is not a political prisoner" and the judiciary is handling his detention.

In a snub to his Hamas rivals, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met Monday with Mansour in Cairo in a show of support for the new government. It comes as authorities have imposed the toughest border restrictions on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in years, sealing smuggling tunnels, blocking most passenger traffic.

Officials with the Islamic militant group expressed outrage at the meeting. Salah Bardaweel, a senior Hamas official, said Abbas' meeting is intended to "tarnish" Hamas and "to provide fabricated documents to the current Egyptian government to accuse Hamas of killing 16 (Egyptian) soldiers in Sinai last year." The brazen attack was followed by Morsi's removal of Egypt's powerful defense minister at the time.
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