Egypt is under fire over the deaths of 25 Sudanese refugees after riot police wielding sticks and water cannon forcibly removed hundreds of demonstrators camped outside UN offices in Cairo.
As many as seven children were reported to be among the dead after the Egyptian police stormed a Cairo square where as many as 2,000 Sudanese refugees had been camped out for three months to bring attention to their cause.
The bloody incident occurred as Egypt was already under the international spotlight over deadly violence during its parliament elections and the jailing of a top opposition leader on political fraud charges.
The international community, led by UN chief
Kofi Annan and the United States, voiced its concern at the violence while a leading human rights watchdog called for those behind the deaths to be punished.
“The high loss of life suggests the police acted with extreme brutality,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watchs Middle East division Saturday. “A police force acting responsibly would not have allowed such a tragedy to occur.”
Judicial sources said Saturday that the death toll had risen to 25 and that an inquiry had been launched.
The interior ministry has said 12 people were killed, blaming a panicked stampede during the operation to clear the refugees from the upmarket Cairo neighbourhood of Mohandessin.
Annan had described the deaths as a “terrible tragedy that cannot be justified,” while the United States said it was “saddened” by the incident and would be seeking more information from Egypt.
Annan expressed “his profound regret that this situation was not resolved peacefully and through dialogue, as the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had strongly urged.”
Egypt’s foreign ministry defended the action, saying the the UN refugee agency had sent several letters to the authorities demanding their intervention to end the protest.
“The Egyptian authorities pursued their efforts to bring a peaceful end to the sit-in by Sudanese refugees until dawn on December 30. It was clear that certain extremist agitators among the refugees were forcibly preventing the others to leave the site,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement.
The spokesman also voiced “surprise” at comments by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres who said there was no justification for such loss of life.
“It is not logical for the High Commissioner for Refugees to make such hasty judgements over the incidents when he himself acknowledges he does not yet know all the details,” he said.
“The foreign ministry is also saddened and sorry for the death of some of the refugees and voices its full respect for its legal commitments towards refugees living in Egypt.”
The protestors had been sleeping rough in deteriorating sanitary conditions in their makeshift crowded camp to demand that the UN refugee agency review cases of asylum-seekers whose applications it has rejected, and resume resettling refugees in third countries.
An AFP reporter had seen several people being forcibly dragged away from the mayhem as refugees — including dozens of women and small children — tried to resist their evacuation.
The refugees were forced into dozens of buses and most were taken to a sealed military training camp in Tora Balad, a town south of Cairo which is home to a large prison notorious for its political detentions.
One refugee reached by telephone claimed three children had died of their wounds in the dormitories where they were herded by security.
“The blood is still on the sidewalks, and already the government is blaming the Sudanese refugees and migrants,” said HRW’s Stork.
“Given Egypts terrible record of police brutality, an independent investigation is absolutely necessary to assess responsibility and punish those responsible.”