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State TV: 2 dead and 60 injured in clashes involving Coptics in Cairo

From Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, For CNN
Egyptian riot police were deployed and created a human barrier between the men and the demonstrators.
Egyptian riot police were deployed and created a human barrier between the men and the demonstrators.
  • NEW: Witnesses claim the attackers were people seeking to incite sectarian violence
  • NEW: A demonstrator demands international protection
  • Pro-Coptic protesters clash with unidentified men
  • Tensions have risen this year between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Coptic Christian minority

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Violence erupted in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero when pro-Coptic protesters clashed with unidentified men, leaving at least two people dead and 60 injured, state TV reported early Sunday.

The demonstrators initially staged a sit-in in front of the state TV building to demand greater rights for the religious minority.

Problems between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Coptic Christian minority have been on the rise in recent months, with a number of violent clashes reported between the two groups.

Dozens of unidentified men, dressed in plain clothes, began firing live ammunition into the air and attacking the demonstrators around the entrance of the sit-in enclosure with sticks and stones. They also threw Molotov cocktails. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were or what their motive was.

"They did not have beards. It was just a bunch of bad guys carrying guns and clubs," said Maged Girguis, a pro-Coptic protester.

Witnesses claimed the attackers were people from neighboring slums, seeking to incite sectarian violence.

Egyptian riot police were deployed and created a human barrier between the men and the demonstrators.

A pro-Coptic protester was hit in the head by a rock. He initially refused to enter an ambulance, saying he feared arrest by the army. Volunteer doctors attempted to treat him in a make-shift field clinic but his wounds were severe and he was eventually taken away in the ambulance.

The demonstrators captured one of their alleged attackers, who was badly beaten.

The pro-Coptic protesters broke up the sidewalk around the television station and threw chunks of rock and concrete at their attackers. The demonstrators were armed with clubs and metal chains and a man was seen carrying a sword.

Later, two groups of men were seen clashing outside the foreign ministry, which is near the TV building. It was not immediately clear whether they were the same groups that fought outside the TV station earlier, though state TV reported that Coptics were involved in the unrest.

The battling groups of men threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other. Black smoke billowed up from the street as cars burned outside the foreign ministry and tear gas was fired. Sporadic gunshots rang out for hours.

Clashes continued into the early morning.

Thousands of riot police and soldiers were deployed and tear gas was fired to clear the crowds. Many men fainted from the gas, while others rushed to assist them.

Army units secured the perimeter and the gunshots stopped. Ambulances arrived.

A man bleeding from a gunshot wound to his stomach was carried to a make-shift clinic by pro-Coptic demonstrators.

A doctor attempted to remove a pellet from another man's leg.

"I was at the front line. They were shooting from the May 15th bridge and I got hit," said Hani Salama, gasping for air.

Thousands of demonstrators chanted loudly, calling for a million-man protest outside the state TV building.

"We demand international protection. The Coptics are threatened all over Egypt," said Rafiq Hanna, a protester.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent bipartisan federal agency, last month added Egypt to a list of countries named as the worst violators of religious freedom.

"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2001," the commissioners wrote in the report. They cited violence toward religious minorities in Egypt, including Coptic Christians and non-majority Muslim groups.

"Since February 11, religious freedom conditions have not improved and attacks targeting religious minorities have continued," the report said.

Officials reported at least 12 people were killed and 230 injured in sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians in the town of Imbaba in Cairo on May 7.

A Coptic church in the town of Alexandria was bombed on New Year's Day, killing 23 people -- the deadliest attack on Christians in Egypt in recent times.

About 9% of Egypt's 80 million residents are Coptic Christians. They base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, according to St. Takla Church in Alexandria, the capital of Coptic Christianity.

The religion split with other Christians in the 5th century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

CNN's Mary Rogers contributed to this report.