UPDATED at 5:00 p.m.: Scores were killed in Cairo late Friday and into early Saturday morning after riot police opened fire on protesters calling to reinstate deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
The official death toll rose to 80 dead and 792 injured throughout Egypt, Ministry of Health officials said. But activists say many more are dead. According to the Anti-Coup Alliance, a coalition of Morsi supporters, the number of fatalities tops 100, with another 5,000 injured.
In what started as a largely peaceful sit-in, rallies in the streets soon erupted into violent clashes between Morsi supporters and the Egyptian armed forces, NBC News’ Ayman Mohyeldin reported from Cairo Saturday morning.
“The police say they only fired tear gas but that seems to be very hard to believe given some of the wounds and casualties that we are hearing from eyewitnesses that clearly show live ammunition and many more severe injuries than simply tear gas inhalation,” Mohyeldin said.
The Egyptian military, which overthrew Morsi almost a month ago, stoked rallies earlier this week by calling on opposition supporters to show solidarity behind the military’s cause. Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged Egyptians to take to the streets to give the military a “mandate” to confront the violence that has raged on for weeks, Reuters reports.
Pentagon officials said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with Sisi Saturday afternoon and encouraged that restraint be exercised amid the violence. Hagel also told his Egyptian counterpart that authorities should avoid politicized arrests and should take steps to prevent further bloodshed, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
Morsi faces allegations that he conspired with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. He was first removed from power and arrested on July 3, and now an Egyptian prosecutor has ordered Morsi to be held in state custody for 15 days while a judge investigates the allegations against him.
The Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi was ousted after having served a year as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. He was brought into power during Egypt’s 2011 revolution that saw the overthrow of the decades-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by Morsi’s court-ordered detention. Psaki went on to say that the U.S.’s focus was on the Islamist leader’s “personal security,” and that the process should work for his release while taking into account the “volatile political situation in Egypt.”
Leaders in Washington are maintaining a close eye on the developments in the region as debates on Capitol Hill rage over whether to classify the mass uprising as a “coup.” Roughly $1.5 billion of U.S. aid is at stake, funds the U.S. would be legally forbidden to grant should Congress make that distinction and label the power overthrow as a coup.
“It is not in our national interest to make such a determination,” Psaki said on Friday. “The law does not require us to make a formal determination.”