CAIRO Eleven people were killed in Cairo on Wednesday, medics said, when armed men attacked protesters demanding an end to army rule, prompting several candidates to suspend presidential campaigns and heightening doubts on the transition to democracy.
Leaders from Islamist and secular camps blamed the trouble on hired "thugs" doing the bidding of entrenched interests behind military rule and warned the generals not to use it as a pretext to delay their departure; the army reaffirmed its stated commitment to handing power to civilians by July.
Unidentified men armed with guns and batons attacked demonstrators who included hundreds of ultraconservative Salafi Islamists protesting at their candidate's exclusion from the ballot for a first-round presidential vote on May 23 and 24.
For hours after the dawn raid, the security forces seemed unable or unwilling to put an end to the violence. As fighting raged near the Defence Ministry in the Abbasiya district of central Cairo, Reuters reporters saw men carrying guns, even a sword, while protesters threw rocks, bottles and petrol bombs.
Only in the afternoon did riot police arrive in large numbers to break up the bloody melee and the clashes abated.
Democracy campaigners blasted the military rulers of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over 15 months ago as veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was brought down by mass street protests during the Arab Spring of uprisings.
"SCAF and the government unable to protect civilians or in cahoots with thugs. Egypt going down the drain," tweeted Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize-winning former U.N. official.
Members of the SCAF met representatives of political parties and repeated a pledge to hold elections on time. Politicians who were present said they even offered to return to barracks over a month before the July deadline - in the albeit unlikely event that one of the 13 first-round candidates wins outright in May.
A runoff between the top two contenders would be in June.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamist group which dominates a parliament elected in December, refused to join talks with the generals, saying Wednesday's violence showed the army was trying to "obstruct the handover of power".
The Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi suspended campaigning for two days, saying they would be mourning the dead. Several political groups said they would call on followers to mass in central Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday.
"I think it will be the practical response to all of what is happening now, be it the blood being spilt or the foot-dragging in the defined date for handing over power," said senior Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian.
The other leading Islamist candidate, Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, suspended campaigning indefinitely in protest at the way the authorities had handled the clashes, a spokesman said.
Abol Fotouh and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, the frontrunner among those with past ties to Mubarak, are seen as the most likely candidates to contest a head-to-head runoff.
On Twitter, Abol Fotouh said he could not now take part in an unprecedented televised debate with Moussa planned for Thursday "when today our youths are drowning in their blood".
The hosting TV channel also said the event was delayed.
Moussa said: "The number of dead and injured foreshadows a disaster and it is unacceptable for security agencies to stand and watch as clashes continue and blood is shed."
Medical and judicial sources gave a toll of 11 dead and over 160 wounded. The Interior Ministry said seven had died.
Ahmed Shahir, 24, a pharmacology student working at a makeshift clinic set up the scene, said men he described as thugs fired shots at an encampment of protesters including supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi cleric barred from the election, and members of pro-democracy youth movements.
Local residents joined in the attack on the protesters.
Among the protesters were hardcore soccer fans and diehard secular revolutionaries skilled in street combat who dashed back and forth across debris-scattered streets, hurling rocks.
Wounded men were hauled away and others filled bottles with gasoline to throw at their opponents. Shots rang out and a Reuters journalist saw at least one attacker wielding a sword.
"Where is the army? Why are they not stopping these people?" cried a bystander.
The army, hailed as national saviour when it rallied behind protesters last year to oust fellow military man Mubarak, sent troops to the scene. But some armoured vehicles then beat a retreat when protesters attacked an officer who was taking video footage. Riot police later arrived in larger numbers and separated the two sides. The violence subsided by the afternoon.
Days of street violence also preceded the start of a staggered parliamentary election in November. That vote, Egypt's first democratic election after six decades of rule by a succession of military autocrats, was mostly smooth.
Official campaigning for the presidential election began this week under a cloud, with the Brotherhood demanding that the army sack the cabinet of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri.
Parliament suspended its work for several days, saying the government was failing to respect its decisions.
Many Egyptians suspect the generals, who have built up vast economic and business interests over the years, will seek a strong influence even after the new president assumes power.
The latest unrest, limited to Cairo, was on too small a scale so far to influence the election, said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University.
"These are small groups," he said, adding that the violence could harden public attitudes against continued military rule.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Shaimaa Fayed, Tom Perry, Ahmed Tolba, Marwa Awad and Dina Zayed; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Alastair Macdonald)