Irish citizens leave besieged Cairo mosque

Four Halawa siblings understood to be safe after Egyptian security forces storm building

Anti-Morsi protesters and riot police officers gather outside al-Fateh mosque at Ramses Square in Cairo this morning. Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, including four Irish citizens, are sheltering in the mosque. Photograph: Louafi Larbi/Reuters

Four Irish citizens have left a Cairo mosque that had been occupied by Islamist supporters of the country’s ousted president.

Egyptian security forces stormed the al-Fateh Mosque in the Ramses area after exchanging gunfire with those insside.

Omaima Halawa (21), her two sisters Somaia (27) and Fatima (23) along with their brother Ibrihim (17) sought refuge from violent clashes yesterday during a "Day of Rage" called by the Muslim Brotherhood. Their father is Hussein Halawa - the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh in Dublin.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the four are believed to be unharmed. It is unclear whether or not they are being held by security forces. He said Irish officials are continuing to liaise with the family and Egyptian authorities.


Egypt’s official news agency Mena reported that gunmen opened fire on security forces from the mosque’s minaret. Local television stations broadcast live footage of soldiers firing assault rifles at the minaret. Security forces reportedly rounded up protesters inside the mosque.

The protesters had barricaded themselves inside overnight out of fears of being beaten by vigilante mobs or being arrested by authorities. The mosque served as a field hospital and morgue following clashes yesterday in the area.

The interior ministry said 173 people died in clashes across Egypt yesterday, bringing the death toll from three days of carnage to almost 800.

Omaima Halawa spoke to The Irish Times from inside the mosque this afternoon as gunshots were being fired.

She said the mosque was surrounded by security forces, who had told everyone inside that they would be shot if they tried to flee the besieged building. She said they had been teargassed by police.

“We’re still surrounded inside the mosque, it is unsafe, they are not letting us leave,” she said. “People have been injured they have been firing at the mosque all night.”

Ms Halawa said t one woman has also died inside the mosque. She said those inside asked police to let her leave but were then refused. She also said they asked for medical treatment for the woman but were also refused.

She said tear gas bombs have been thrown inside the building, where they have been sheltering since yesterday evening. They have received no food and very little water since being there.

She called on the police to let them out peacefully. “We don’t want anything else. We have no hidden agenda,” she said. “There are many of us in here and we are all peaceful protesters.”

Egypt’s Nile News reported that about 10 people, mostly women, left the mosque today accompanying the body of a woman who died yesterday.

Ms Halawa was taking part in a demonstration when violence forced them into the mosque at about 7pm last night. Her family is now too scared to leave without help and assurances from a diplomat.

Anti-Morsi gangs outside the mosque have threatened to kill her if she leaves the building, she said. “We want a safe passage out for the four of us. I do not trust (security forces) or the thugs. They have personally threatened to slaughter me when they see me.”

Ms Halawa, who is a student at Blanchardstown Institute of Technology said she and her siblings have been in Egypt on holidays since the start of the summer. Their mother is in Egypt while their father remained in Dublin.

From the family home at Firhouse in the south Dublin, another sister Nasaybi said they were enduring a terrible ordeal. “We are really worried. We do not know how to help them,” she said. “ We are just trying to support them by calling and giving them some hope that they will get home safely.”

The “Day of Rage” was ignited by anger at security forces for clearing two sit-in demonstrations earlier in the week, leaving hundreds dead.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi are vowing to defy a state of emergency with new protests today, the day after marches in Cairo devolved into the fiercest street battles that the capital has seen in more than two years.

Police and armed vigilantes at neighbourhood checkpoints battled Muslim Brotherhood-led protesters, with the sight of residents firing at one another marking a dark turn in the conflict.

Military helicopters hovered over the centre of Cairo as residents furious with the Brotherhood protests pelted marchers with rocks and glass bottles. The two sides also fired on one another, sparking running street battles throughout the capital’s residential neighbourhoods.

Unlike in past clashes between protesters and police, yesterday’s violence introduced a combustible new mix, with residents and police in civilian clothing battling the marchers. Few police in uniform were seen as neighbourhood watch groups and pro-Morsi protesters fired at one another for hours on a bridge that crosses over Cairo’s Zamalek district, an upmarket island neighbourhood where many foreigners and ambassadors live.

The violence began shortly after midday prayers when tens of thousands of Brotherhood supporters answered the group’s call to protest across Egypt in defiance of a military-imposed state of emergency following the bloodshed earlier this week.

Armed civilians manned impromptu checkpoints throughout the capital, banning Brotherhood marches from approaching and frisking anyone wanting to pass through. At one, residents barred ambulances and cars carrying wounded from Cairo's main battleground, Ramses Square, from reaching a hospital.

At least 12 people were killed near the square as some in the crowd tried to attack a police station, security officials said. An army spokesman accused gunmen of firing from the mosque at nearby buildings.

Similar battles played out in cities across the country, where people brandishing weapons attacked police and residents fired at one another.

Egypt's security forces were rocked by the country's 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and have not fully recovered since.

In the canal city of Suez, 14 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. In Egypt's second-largest city of Alexandria, 10 people were killed during clashes between the two rival camps. Security officials said violence was also fierce in the province of Fayoum, just west of Cairo, where seven people were killed during an attempt to storm the main security building there, a security official said. Two policemen died in the attack.

In the southern province of Minya, protesters attacked two Christian churches, security officials said. At churches across the country, residents formed human chains to try to protect them from further assaults, and a civilian was killed while trying to protect a church in Sohag, south of Cairo, authorities said. Many of Mr Morsi’s supporters have criticised Egypt’s Christian minority for largely supporting the military’s decision to remove him from office, and dozens of churches have been attacked this week.

Mourad Ali, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, denounced the attacks on churches, saying they ran counter to Islamic principles and were an attempt to ignite sectarian divisions. "Our stance is clear ... We strongly condemn any attack - even verbal - on churches and on Coptic property. This holds true whether or not Coptic leaders joined in or supported the July 3 coup. This does not justify any attack on them," he said in an online statement.

More than 1,000 people were arrested in yesterday’s clashes, including local Brotherhood leaders in the provinces. The group’s top figures are facing charges of inciting violence and some have been imprisoned for weeks.

Mr Morsi has been held at an undisclosed location and is facing a criminal investigation.

Additional reporting: Agencies

Kilian Doyle

Kilian Doyle

Kilian Doyle is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times