egypt protesters.jpgAnti-government protesters kept a grim grip on the square at the centre of efforts to oust Egypt’s president into the morning hours Thursday, after a day of battles marked by horse- and camelback charges, rhythmic banging of makeshift shields and the glow of firebombs hurled in the dark.

But their continued presence in Tahrir Square came at a cost: Egypt’s health minister was quoted by Nile TV as saying four people were killed and 200 were wounded within an hour after heavy gunfire broke out — just before calls to prayer echoed across the city, signifying the coming daylight.

There was no independent confirmation of the casualties or who was behind the shooting, which sounded like automatic weapons fire. Demonstrators interviewed inside the square Thursday said it came from pro-Mubarak people as they were leaving the scene of the confrontation.

The scene Thursday was one of rubble everywhere, as streets had been torn up to provide stones to throw. Many of the several thousand demonstrators still in the square wore bandages on their heads from their injuries in the battle.

But by midmorning another confrontation appeared to be looming, as pro-government demonstrators started gathering at the scene of the fighting the night before.

President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters had converged on the square to confront the opposition Wednesday, a day after he declared that he would not seek reelection in September.

Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief appointed vice president last week, said the government could not begin talks with the opposition until normal life resumed.

The army, positioned around the plaza, fired into the air but did little else to intervene. The crowd of anti-government protesters, sparse compared with the hundreds of thousands in the square Tuesday, was besieged on all sides by a large force and attacked with firebombs from rooftops.

The anti-government demonstrators banged on pieces of gates and metal shields apparently torn from a construction site, and the two sides cheered as they charged each other’s lines.

The anti-Mubarak protesters organised themselves into teams. One shift manned barricades next to the Egyptian Museum, another passed stones to them to repel the pro-Mubarak forces.

The military had called for an end to the protests, an announcement widely seen as a signal that it had not abandoned Mubarak.

“You are the ones capable of returning normal life to Egypt,” military spokesman Ismail Etman said on state television.

The opposition said the violence Wednesday showed that any discussions were pointless until Mubarak was gone.