Egypt PM: There Is No Excuse to Attack Peaceful Protesters

At least five killed, more than 800 wounded overnight as government supporters open fire on anti-Mubarak demonstrators; clashes continue into Thursday afternoon, despite army attempts to intervene.

Violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continued in central Cairo on Thursday, even after the army deployed infantry to create a buffer zone in an attempt to halt violence between them.

At least five people were killed in the fighting that erupted over night in Cairo's central Tahrir square, after Mubarak loyalists opened fire on the opposition protesters. The gun fire began at around 4 A.M. and subsided after an hour, but the two sides were pelting each other with rocks well into the afternoon.

Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologized for the violence and pledged that those behind the clashes would be punished."There is no excuse to attack peaceful protesters and I therefore am apologizing," he told Egyptian-owned broadcaster al Hayat.

It was the second time Shafiq has apologized this week, having earlier told the country's youth he was sorry that the government did not listen to their calls for change sooner.

A detained pro-Mubarak supporter (R) is led away by opposition demonstrators in Tahrir Square

However, the BBC reported that other government officials continued to deny any state involvement in attacks Wednesday and overnight on reformist protesters, who for 10 days have been peacefully demanding greater democracy and that Mubarak step down.

A journalist at the scene in Cairo square on Thursday said the opposing camps were separated by a distance of some 80 meters and that they army had urged Mubarak supporters to leave the square. It was the first time the army was seen to act decisively to halt the violence.

"The neutral zone is absolutely covered in fist-size rocks," said the reporter.

Opposition protesters unsatisfied by Mubarak's pledge to step down in September have vowed to stay until the 82-year-old president quits.

Chances of a peaceful resolution to the crisis receded on Wednesday when supporters of Mubarak, throwing petrol bombs, wielding sticks and charging on camels and horses, attacked protesters in Tahrir Square.

Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Samih Farid told state television on Thursday at least 836 people were wounded in the fighting within 24-hours. He said most of the casualties were due to stone throwing and attacks with metal rods and sticks.

Officials said three people were killed in Wednesday's violence and more than 1,500 were wounded. Skirmishes between Mubarak supporters and protesters continued into the Wednesday night, and then after a brief lull, live television aired footage of fresh fighting, gunfire ringing out repeatedly across the square.

Two bodies were shown being pulled from the scene, while Mubarak supporters and protesters hurled stones at each other. Black smoke billowed over the area.

By dawn, protesters had held their ground in the square, setting up iron barricades to protect themselves. "We cannot go back at this point," a 33-year-old woman told al Jazeera.

"One way or another we will bring Mubarak down," some opposition protesters chanted in the early morning. "We will not give up, we will not sell out," others shouted.

"Things have calmed down now but through the night, we were getting dozens of wounded every 15 minutes," Doctor Mohamed Abdel Hamid, who was in the square, said Thursday morning. "We had casualties all over the place.

Some questioned why the army had not intervened when the shooting broke out, though by dawn, military vehicles were deployed at the edge of the square and television showed footage of some men being arrested.

An estimated 150 people have been killed so far and there have been protests across the country. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said up to 300 people may have died.