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Egypt Security Forces Block Activists, Doctors from Reaching Strike Town


Egyptian security forces have blocked a group of doctors, lawyers and activists from visiting protesters allegedly injured in food riots earlier this week. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Police detained the group of about 25 doctors, lawyers, activists and journalists for several hours, blocking them from traveling to the Nile Delta town of Mahalla El-Kubra, about 100 kilometers north of Cairo. The group had been trying to check on people in the town who were wounded and arrested during two days of rioting over food prices earlier in the week.

"What we were planning to do was visit those who got injured in the recent protests, because we heard also that they are shackled to their beds in hospital, and some of them are injured. And we wanted to visit them and see how they are doing, how the conditions of their hospitalization is, and express our solidarity," said human rights worker and physician Aida Seif Al-Dawla, who heads the Nadim Center, which aids victims of violence.

At least 400 people are reported to have been arrested in Mahalla since rioting erupted on Sunday, after an attempted labor strike at a textile factory. Reports from the scene say police broke up the demonstrations, firing rubber bullets, tear gas and in some cases live ammunition. The two days of unrest left at least two civilians dead.

International human rights groups have called on Egypt to investigate the excessive use of force by security forces in response to the protests. In London, Amnesty International spokesman Said Haddadi said some of the people injured in the protests have been afraid to seek medical care because they are afraid of being arrested.

"Our call is for the Egyptian authorities to open an immediate, impartial investigation into the circumstances that have led to these killings and also open investigations into the excessive use of force by security forces in dealing with the demonstrators and protesters in Mahalla in the last two days," he said.

Several journalists were among those arrested in Mahalla over the last several days.

An American freelance photographer was arrested Thursday and released Friday, but his translator remained in police custody. A photographer from the Reuters news agency was also arrested Friday. The Associated Press quoted a security source saying nine photographers and cameramen had been arrested in the Mahalla.

Activists, like Aida Seif Al-Dawla, are vowing that they will eventually get to Mahalla despite the government's efforts to limit access to the area. "Oh yes, we'll go back. We'll go back and we'll get those testimonies, and we'll visit those hospitals. We are going back. This is definite," he said.

The workers in Mahalla have repeatedly gone on strike over the last year and a half, inspiring a wave of similar labor actions around the country.

But Sunday was the first time that any opposition group has tried to broaden the workers' protests into a wider political protest.

Seif Al-Dawla says the severity of the government's response has been telling. "We are ruled by a government which thinks it is degrading that they respond to the demands and rights of their people - the people that should be governing. And eventually this can only end in things like Mahalla… so it tells me that the situation is very tense, that we have a terrified government, that we have pathetic political parties and that people are taking initiative in their hands," he said.

Exactly what sparked the violence in Mahalla is still unclear. The striking workers have disavowed any connection to it, saying most of the rioters were young unemployed men angry over food prices.

In a related development, activists say the former leader and co-founder of the Kifaya opposition movement was released from prison on bail of about one-thousand dollars. George Ishak was arrested Wednesday and charged with inciting violence in connection to the strike.

Kifaya did not originate the plans for a strike, but was one of many opposition groups backing the call to turn the work stoppage into a nationwide. Kifaya is a loose coalition of pro-democracy activists formed in 2004. Ishak stepped down as the group's leader more than a year ago but remains active in the organization.

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