Al-Qaida head's brother nabbed in mosque raid as Egypt's security forces clear site
CAIRO — Egyptian security forces on Saturday stormed a Cairo mosque, rounding up hundreds of supporters of the country's ousted president, including the brother of the head of al-Qaida, who had sought refuge there overnight when violent clashes killed 173 people.
The raid on the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square was prompted by fears that deposed President Mohamed Morsy's group, the Muslim Brotherhood, again planned to set up a sit-in, security officials said, similar to those that were broken up last week in assaults that killed hundreds of people.
The arrest of the brother of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri was made in connection to the raid on the mosque. Officials said he planned to bring in armed groups to provide support to those holed up inside the mosque.
Mohammed al-Zawahri, a Morsy ally, is the leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafi group, which espouses al-Qaida's hard-line ideology. He was detained at a checkpoint in Giza, the city across the Nile from Cairo, the official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists about the arrest.
The Egyptian government meanwhile announced it had begun deliberations on whether to ban the Brotherhood, a long-outlawed organization that swept to power in the country's first democratic elections a year ago.
Such a ban, which authorities say is rooted in the group's use of violence, would be a repeat of the decades-long power struggle between the state and the Brotherhood.
Egypt's Interior Ministry said in a statement that a total of 1,004 Brotherhood members had been detained in raids across the country and that weapons, bombs and ammunition were confiscated from the detainees.
For more than a month since the July 3 military overthrow of Morsy, Brotherhood members and supporters have attacked and torched scores of police stations and churches. Shops and houses of Christians have been targeted.
Such attacks spurred widespread public anger against the Brotherhood, giving the military-backed government popular support to step up its campaign against the Islamist group. It reminded people of a decade-long Islamist insurgency against President Hosni Mubarak's rule in the 1990s that only strengthened security agencies and ended up with thousands of Islamic fundamentalists in prisons.
The unrest in Egypt has raised international concerns over the country's stability and prompted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to condemn “violent protests” in reference to Brotherhood's rallies and the authorities' “excessive use of force.”
Ban noted, in an apparent rebuff of Brotherhood demands to reinstate Morsy, that the “political clocks move only forward, not backward,” and he urged “maximum restraint and shift immediately to de-escalation.”
Former President Jimmy Carter expressed deep concern over the violence, saying it is “rapidly eroding the chances for dialogue and a road to reconciliation.”
Carter added that he is “especially concerned that Egyptians are arming themselves and engaging in inter-communal violence.”
In Cairo, the assault on the al-Fath Mosque began on Friday when pro-Morsy protesters and armed men fled into the worship center to avoid angry vigilantes and arrests. They piled furniture in the mosque's entrance to block authorities and enraged anti-Morsy protesters from reaching them.
The mosque served as a field hospital and a morgue as a Brotherhood-called day of protests descended into violence. By daybreak on Saturday, security forces and armored personnel carriers had surrounded the mosque and it appeared that military-led negotiations might defuse the standoff.
A post on the Facebook page of the army spokesman, Col. Mohammed Ali, accused gunmen of firing from the mosque at nearby buildings on Ramses Square in central Cairo. The upper floors of a commercial building and blood bank towering over the square caught fire during the mayhem, with flames engulfing it for hours.
A Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdel-Hafiz el-Maslami, said there were armed men inside the mosque at one point but protesters had forced them out.
“We lost control over things,” the cleric said. “There were men with arms in the mosque who were forced out of the mosque, but we can't control things here.”
However, local journalist Shaimaa Awad, who was trapped in the mosque with the Islamists, said the talks failed after three women were detained by the military on agreeing to get out early Saturday.
An Associated Press reporter said that thousands of anti-Islamists rallied outside the mosque, chanting: “God take revenge on Morsy and those standing behind him!”
Army tanks and soldiers closed off the main entrances to Ramses Square as soldiers sealed off the area with barbed wire.
By midday, gunmen took over a mosque minaret and opened fire on the security forces below, the state-run MENA news agency said.
The crowd around the mosque panicked as soldiers opened fire with assault rifles. The chaos was broadcast live on local television channels.
Several security officials said that ending the standoff at the mosque was essential after receiving information that the group planned to turn it into a protest camp. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, achieved power a year ago when Morsy was elected in the country's first free presidential elections. The previous leader, Mubarak, was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2011.
The fundamentalist group has been banned for most of its 85-year history and was subjected repeatedly to crackdowns under Mubarak's rule.