CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s army rulers vowed on Saturday to try those behind the violence that pushed Israel to evacuate its ambassador from Cairo, as they struggled to contain public fury against the Jewish state while fending off U.S. criticism.
Washington, which has poured billions of dollars in military aid into Egypt since it made peace with Israel in 1979, urged Cairo to protect the mission after protesters hurled embassy documents from the windows of the building and removed and burned the Israeli flag.
Three people died and 1,049 were wounded in the clashes that began Friday and raged on into the early hours of Saturday around the Cairo tower block housing the embassy, the Health Ministry said. Police and soldiers fired shots in the air and tear gas to disperse the crowd, which replied with stones.
Egypt’s army, under pressure to hand power back to civilians after taking over from toppled president Hosni Mubarak, must balance public calls for a more assertive policy toward Israel with maintaining ties that bring it cash and U.S. military hardware.
“Egypt witnessed a harsh day that inflicted pain and worry on all Egyptians. It is clear that the behavior of some threatens the Egyptian revolution,” Information Minister Osama Hassan Heikal said in a televised statement.
Egypt would transfer those in custody or “involved in inciting or participating in (Friday’s) events to the emergency state security court,” the minister said. Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz el-Guindy told state television the government had decided to apply emergency laws still in place “forcefully” and that trials would be swift.
Protesters burned tyres in the street and at least two police vehicles were set alight near the embassy. Many had come from a demonstration in central Cairo organised to push the army to end emergency law and speed up political reforms.
“Our dignity has been restored,” said Mohi Alaa, 24, a protester near the site of the overnight clashes. Bits of concrete and bullet casings were strewn over the street.
“We don’t want the Americans’ money,” he said, reflecting the greater readiness of many Egyptians to express resentment of Israel and the United States after decades of pragmatic official relations.
Some 500 protesters stayed after dawn and a few threw stones at police, who gradually pushed them away and secured the area around the embassy, located on the upper floors of a residential block overlooking the Nile.
It was the second big eruption of violence at the embassy since five Egyptian border guards were killed last month when Israel repelled cross-border raiders it said were Palestinians. Egypt then briefly threatened to withdraw its envoy to Israel.
Israel has stopped short of apologising, saying it is still investigating the Egyptian deaths, which occurred during an operation against gunmen who had killed eight Israelis.
Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Levanon, staff and family members arrived home Saturday, but one diplomat stayed in Egypt to maintain the embassy, an Israeli official said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would preserve its 1979 peace with Egypt despite the incident. “We are working together with the Egyptian government to return our ambassador to Cairo soon,” he said in televised remarks. “I would like to ensure that the security arrangements necessary for him and for our staff will be steadfast.”
The Egyptian information minister’s statement followed a crisis meeting of his key cabinet members and talks with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak stepped down on February 11.
State television said the military council rejected an offer by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to resign.
Israel is finding itself increasingly at odds with formerly sympathetic states in the region. It is embroiled in a feud with Turkey, once the closest of its few Muslim allies, over an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks on a flotilla bound for Gaza.
Egypt’s ties with Israel, though never warm, were a pillar of Mubarak’s foreign policy and buttressed his claim to be a regional mediator. Under Mubarak, displays of hostility to Israel were crushed by force.
President Barack Obama called on Egypt to “honor its international obligations” and protect the Israeli mission. He told Israel’s Netanyahu that Washington was taking steps to resolve the situation.
The State Department said Washington had been in contact with Egyptian and Israeli officials over the violence.
“Israel and Egypt are key partners and allies of the United States, and both states have made clear their continuing commitment to maintain their bilateral relationship and the peace treaty between them, which remains a cornerstone of regional stability,” Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said Cairo was committed to “fully respect all its international obligations regarding protecting and safeguarding international diplomatic missions on its soil,” the state MENA news agency said.
An Israeli official said the ambassador, staff and family members had left in one plane and a second one had brought home six Israeli security personnel who had been left guarding the embassy, protected from the crowd only by a reinforced door until Egyptian troops extracted them.
British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the embassy attack and urged Egypt to protect diplomatic property.
Some Egyptian politicians and activists criticised the violence, even if they backed the anti-Israel demonstration.
Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy called for the army to take a “serious stance matching the public anger” toward Israel but said violence sullied the image of Egypt’s uprising.
Last month, a man scaled the embassy building, took down Israel’s flag and replaced it with Egypt’s. Protests continued daily but did not turn violent until the latest flare-up.
In response to the protests, the authorities had erected a wall around the building, which was quickly defaced with anti-Israel slogans and then painted in Egypt’s national colours. Friday, the wall was torn down.
Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Mohamed Abdellah, Seham Eloraby, Ahmed Tolba and Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, and Christopher Wilson and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Janet Lawrence