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Egypt army officer says 15 others join protesters

CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian army officer who joined protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square said on Friday 15 other middle-ranking officers had also gone over to the demonstrators.

“The armed forces’ solidarity movement with the people has begun,” Major Ahmed Ali Shouman told Reuters by telephone just after dawn prayers.

On Thursday evening Shouman told crowds in Tahrir that he had handed in his weapon and joined their protests demanding an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

“Some 15 officers ... have joined the people’s revolution,” he said, listing their ranks ranging from captain to lieutenant colonel. “Our goals and the people’s are one.”

Shouman said the other officers would address the crowd after Friday midday prayers.

Another army major walked up to Shouman while he was talking with a Reuters reporter in Tahrir on Thursday and introduced himself, saying: “I have also joined the cause.”

The army was sent onto the streets after police withdrew following their failure to crush protesters on January 28.

The military, which has deployed dozens of tanks and troop carriers around Tahrir Square and key installations, has promised not to fire on demonstrators.

Protesters, reeling with disillusion and anger a day after Mubarak dashed hopes he was about to resign, plan huge rallies and marches on Friday that may test the army’s loyalties.

“What drove these officers and I to join the people’s revolution is the pledge of allegiance we all took upon joining the armed forces -- to protect the nation,” Shouman said when asked whether officers were risking court-martial.

Protesters carried Shouman on their shoulders, chanting “The people and army are united”, after he spoke to them on stage.

Although Egyptians generally respect the mostly conscript armed forces, some protesters were angered when troops stood by last week as Mubarak loyalists clashed with demonstrators.

“How could the army simply stand watch like a useless bystander when Mubarak thugs came in on us last Wednesday and killed 300 martyrs in the square? The army let the people down,” Salah Basouny, 37, said while arguing with a major-general at the state television building near Tahrir.

Shouman, who had to show his army credentials to a few suspicious protesters, said he had urged other officers to join the planned anti-Mubarak demonstrations across Egypt.

He said he had 15 years of army service and had been told to guard the western entrance to Tahrir Square. Many of the other officers siding with the protesters had been posted around Tahrir and had been in constant contact with those inside.