Huge crowds turn out at Tahrir Square for Mubarak`s `departure day`

Defying military orders to go home, thousands of protesters laid a siege to Cairo`s central square.

Cairo: Egyptian protesters massed Friday for sweeping "departure day" demonstrations to force President Hosni Mubarak to quit after he said he would like to step down but fears chaos would result.

Tens of thousands filled Cairo`s central Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 11 straight days of protests that have shaken the pillars of Mubarak`s three-decade rule, on the Muslim day of rest.

At one end of the square the faithful prayed out in the open, beneath two traffic lights from each of which hung an effigy of Mubarak.

"We were born free and we shall live free," prayer leader Khaled al-Marakbi said in his sermon. "I ask of you patience until victory."

Worshippers used newspapers, banners or even Egyptian flags as impromptu prayer mats, reciting the traditional prayer for the dead in memory of the more than 300 people who have died since the protests erupted, sending shock waves around the world.

Iran`s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fanned Western concerns about the turmoil in key ally Egypt, calling on its people to rise up and create an Islamic state.

In Tahrir Square, the prayer leader and many in the vast open-air congregation wept, still shaken by the clashes with stone-throwing Mubarak supporters that had left at least eight people dead and more than 800 hurt over the previous two days and drawn a stern rebuke from Washington.

There was a new pro-government rally on Friday in the upscale Mohandeseen neighbourhood of the capital but it was attended by dozens of people rather than the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square.

Defence minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi -- regarded by Washington as a key plank of any post-Mubarak administration -- visited the square to appeal to demonstrators to give up their protest in the light of Mubarak`s pledge earlier this week not to seek re-election in September.

"The man (Mubarak) told you he won`t stand again," Tantawi told the protesters flanked by troops.

He urged opposition leaders, including the supreme guide of the powerful Muslim Brotherhoood, Mohammed Badie, to join talks with the government on political transition.

"Tell the guide to go sit down with them," Tantawi said.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera television, Badie reiterated the opposition`s position that there could be no talks until Mubarak stepped down.

"We stand with all the political forces supporting dialogue with whoever wants to implement reforms in the country after the departure of this unjust, corrupt tyrant," he told the Qatar-based satellite channel.

"We have a single demand. Once it is met, we will engage in dialogue."

But two small secular opposition parties -- the liberal Wafd and left-leaning Tagammu -- on Thursday accepted the offer of dialogue.

In his first interview since the protests erupted, Mubarak blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence of recent days, ABC television`s Christiane Amanpour reported.

The veteran leader was "fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot, he says, for fear that the country would sink into chaos," Amanpour said.

"He told me that he is troubled by the violence we have seen in Tahrir Square over the last few days but that his government is not responsible for it. Instead, he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood."

Mubarak`s onetime foreign minister, Arab League chief Amr Mussa, said he doubted his former boss would leave any time soon.

"I do not think he will leave. I think he will stay until the end of August," Mussa told France`s Europe 1 radio before himself later venturing out into Tahrir Square in what his office described as a "calming gesture."

There were also demonstrations for Mubarak`s departure in a raft of provincial cities.

In Egypt`s second city Alexandria, tens of thousands gathered in the city centre and Brotherhood official Sobhi Saleh said tens of thousands more were marching in from various suburbs.

In Luxor in the south and Mansura and Mahalla in the Nile Delta, tens of thousands demonstrated, a security official said. There were smaller protests in the cities of Assiut, Menufiya and Suez, he added.

Western governments have been increasingly strident in their criticism of the deadly violence unleashed by Mubarak supporters.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington had traced the violence to "elements close to the government and the ruling party" even if it is not clear how far "up the chain" it goes.

"Senior administration officials said that the proposal was one of several options under discussion with high-level Egyptian officials around Mr Mubarak in an effort to persuade the president to step down now," the paper said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said after talks in Berlin that the transition process should start "as soon as possible ... the sooner the better."

Bureau Report