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Egyptian military vows to step down

But rulers warn against protests

CAIRO - Egypt’s ruling generals repeated their pledge Thursday to transfer power to a civilian government within two months, a day after deadly clashes stoked by political tensions brought fresh accusations that the military was trying to create chaos so it could cling to power.

At the same time, the military council warned antigovernment protesters that deadly force would be used against them if they approached the Ministry of Defense.

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At least 11 people were killed in clashes that broke out Wednesday when apparent supporters of the military rulers attacked a mostly Islamist crowd staging a sit-in outside the Ministry of Defense in Cairo to call for an end to the generals’ rule.

The protesters were predominantly supporters of an ultraconservative presidential candidate who was barred from running in the May 23-24 presidential election.

Army troops were accused of standing idly by near the clashes and not intervening until after the deaths. But a senior member of the military council tried to counter accusations that the military might use the violence as a pretext to ignore its own deadline to relinquish control.

‘Our hands are clean of Egyptian blood.’

Major General Mohammed al-Assar 
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Some suspect that the military wants to create turmoil so it can justify holding onto power.

“We say it frankly and clearly. The armed forces and their supreme council are committed to the handover of power on June 30,’’ Major General Mohammed al-Assar told a news conference. “We don’t desire power. The Supreme Council [of the Armed Forces] is not a substitute for legitimacy in Egypt.’’

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“Have mercy on the Supreme Council,’’ he pleaded. “Our hands are clean of Egyptian blood.’’

Major General Mukhtar al-Mullah sternly warned protesters that if they try to approach the Defense Ministry, deadly force would be used against them. Political and prodemocracy groups are organizing a mass protest Friday near the Defense Ministry to demand that the military respect the July 1 deadline for stepping down.

“Self-defense is applicable against anyone who approaches a military facility. Whoever does that must endure the consequences,’’ he warned.

Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Wednesday’s violence disturbing during a visit to Egypt and said the United States stands by the right of Egyptian people to express their political rights. “We urge the government to investigate these events and . . . hold those committed them accountable,’’ he said.

He met with Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and said he “was crystal clear with me. He is very determined and very adamant that he and [the Supreme Council] in full intend to turn over power. In fact, I think they can’t wait. I think they are anxious. . . . They want to see this election happen.’’

He added that they are even ready to hand off power before June, if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote during the first round of elections.

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