CAIRO – Thousands of inmates escaped prisons across Egypt on Sunday, including at least one jail that housed Muslim militants northwest of Cairo, adding to the chaos engulfing the country as anti-government protests continue to demand the ouster of longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak.
Security officials said the prisoners escaped overnight from four jails after starting fires and clashing with guards. The inmates were helped by gangs of armed men who attacked the prisons, firing at guards in gun battles that lasted hours.
Looting and arson continued overnight as the police totally disappeared from the streets of the capital and several major Egyptian cities. There has been no explanation for why the police have vanished.
The vacuum left by the police has prompted residents to form neighborhood protection groups, armed with firearms, sticks and clubs to set up self-styled checkpoints and barricades to ward off looting gangs roaming Cairo and other cities. The groups set up barricades, using bricks and metal traffic barriers.
Groups of youths also directed traffic in parts of Cairo, chasing away gangs of criminals smashing passing cars. Residents said gangs were also stopping people on the streets and robbing them.
At least one shopping mall was on fire Sunday morning after it was looted the previous day.
Army helicopters were flying low over the city.
The army appears to be reinforcing its presence on the streets of Cairo, but entire neighborhoods remained without any troops two days after Mubarak called the army out on the streets to restore order.
The security officials said several inmates were killed and wounded during the escapes early Sunday, but gave no specific figures. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
State Egyptian television, meanwhile, said authorities have decided to close down the Cairo offices of the Qatar-based Al-Jazzera television and suspend the accreditation of its reporters.
The Egyptian TV did not give a reason for the move, but Egyptian authorities have often in the past charged that station’s coverage of events in Egypt was sensational or biased against Mubarak’s regime. AP