Cairo: Egypt`s Army-backed government on Thursday urged supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi to abandon their Cairo protest camps, promising them a safe exit if they gave up without a fight.
The appeal, made by Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif on state television, followed the government`s warning on Wednesday that it was ready to take action to end two weeks of sit-in protests by thousands of Morsi supporters at two sites.
Since the Army ousted the Islamist Morsi on July 3, police have rounded up many leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood, mostly on charges of inciting violence. Wednesday`s threat raised the possibility of a potentially bloody showdown.
Latif said that if protesters left the sites peacefully, they would be guaranteed a safe exit. No deadline was set.
"There is no specified date. We will continue to study the situation on the ground," Latif told a news agency.
The protesters remained defiant on Thursday morning and prepared for the worst.
At the Rabaa al-Adawiya camp, boxes and other rubbish that had littered the ground were cleared to allow easier ambulance access. Buckets of sand were placed throughout the camp to be used to extinguish tear gas canisters.
Behind a barricade made of bricks and sandbags, rocks had been piled up to use as ammunition.
"We are ready. We are ready to die for legitimacy. An attack can happen at any moment," said Mohamed Saqr, a Brotherhood activist guarding an entrance to the encampment centred around a mosque in northeast Cairo.
Egypt is now more polarised than at any time since the US-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, starting off a political transition fraught with unrest.
Huge pro-Army rallies
The government`s new transition plan envisions Parliamentary Elections in about six months, to be followed by a presidential vote. The Brotherhood says the Army has mounted a coup against a legitimate elected leader and wants nothing to do with the plan.
The government has been buoyed by huge pro-Army rallies on Friday in response to a call by Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for Egyptians to give him a "mandate" to crack down on "violence and terrorism" - a reference to the Brotherhood.
Morsi has been in Army detention since his overthrow and faces a judicial inquiry into accusations that include murder and kidnapping. The authorities also brought formal charges on Wednesday against the Brotherhood`s three top leaders, two of whom are in custody.
The arrests, along with street violence that has killed well over 100 Morsi supporters, have fuelled global concern that the government plans to crush the Brotherhood even though it says it wants to involve the Islamists in the transition plan.
The visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Thursday urged the authorities to avoid "the appearance of selective justice".
But his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, speaking alongside him, retorted that there was no agenda of vengeance and no selective justice.
"There is law and it applies to everyone," Fahmy said.
"Ready to die"
A grouping of Morsi supporters calling itself the Anti-Coup Pro-Democracy Alliance said the security forces planned to foment violence as an excuse for committing a massacre. Peaceful protests would continue, it said.
It also appealed to soldiers and police not to fire on protesters.
Wednesday`s government announcement appeared to undermine efforts by the European Union to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spent two days in Cairo this week, becoming the first outsider to see Morsi when she was flown after dark by military helicopter to his secret place of confinement.
Bernardino Leon, an EU envoy in Cairo to pursue the mediation effort, visited the main sit-in on Wednesday night.
Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said: "This military coup is not accepted by a large segment of society. I think he (Leon) got the message."
Thousands of Brotherhood supporters are camped out behind sandbag fortifications at Rabaa al-Adawiya. The entrances are guarded by volunteers with sticks and shields. The government says the protesters are using guns.
The Brotherhood has vowed to resist any attempt by the security forces to disperse the camps.
Such forcible action could set off more bloodletting after security forces killed 80 Brotherhood followers on Saturday and plunged the most populous Arab nation deeper into turmoil. The Brotherhood has called for a "million-man march" on Friday.
Human rights group Amnesty International called the Cabinet decision to clear the camps "a recipe for further bloodshed".
Almost 300 people have been killed in violence since Morsi`s overthrow, inspiring fears in the West of a wider conflagration in Egypt, which straddles the Suez Canal and whose 1979 peace treaty with Israel is central to US policy in the Middle East.
The United States, which supports the Egyptian military with USD 1.3 billion a year in aid, urged security forces to respect the right to peaceful assembly.
The US military will go ahead with a joint exercise called Bright Star in Egypt in mid-September, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said.