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A child sits on a tank while a Egyptian soldiers stands by during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarek in al-Tahir Square on Jan. 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Chris Hondros/Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
A child sits on a tank while a Egyptian soldiers stands by during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarek in al-Tahir Square on Jan. 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Chris Hondros/Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Thousands gather peacefully in Cairo, calling for Mubarak to leave Add to ...

Thousands of Egyptian protesters gathered peacefully in Tahrir Square in central Cairo Saturday, demanding President Hosni Mubarak step down and cheering as though it were a World Cup victory.

Members of the military, riding in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, guarded important government buildings, but largely avoided clashing with protesters.

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The ruling party's headquarters, next to the square, were still smoldering after being lit on fire during massive and violent protests the night before.

But on Saturday, with a shift to a more joyous and respectful tone among the crowds, people were picking up litter off the streets and throwing it in refuse bins.

However, police opened fired on the demonstrators around the area of Tahrir Square after thousands tried to storm the Interior Ministry. At least three were killed and their bodies were carried through the crowd of protesters.

The death toll since the largest anti-government protests in decades began Tuesday rose to 48, according to medical and security officials and witnesses at the demonstration. Of those, 41 have been killed since Friday. Some 2,000 injuries have been reported.

The military was protecting important tourist and archaeological sites such as the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country's most treasured antiquities, as well as the cabinet building. The pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo - Egypt's premiere tourist site - were closed by the military to tourists.

Mr. Mubarak, who has not picked a vice-president since his took office in 1981, appointed his intelligence chief and confidante Omar Suleiman to the post, the official news agency said on Saturday.

The vice-president is the post that Mr. Mubarark occupied before he was appointed president.

Friday night, a defiant Mr. Mubarak attempted to reassure the Egyptian people that he is still the best man to deal with the grievances of the people, and would do so in an orderly way.

Mr. Mubarak said he was aware of people's hopes to improve the economy and would take steps to do so "as soon as possible." To that end, he announced that he had dismissed the government and would appoint a new cabinet Sunday.

But, emphasizing the "thin line that separates freedom and chaos," Mr. Mubarak said that the violence of protesters in recent days was an attempt "to destabilize the country," something he would not tolerate.

Delivered after midnight on state television, these were the words of a man looking over the abyss: the 30-year rule of the Egyptian President is hanging by a thread.

In scenes that haven't been witnessed in this capital since the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, tens of thousands of people protested in the streets on Friday, battling thousands of riot police that tried, and failed, to prevent the protesters from overrunning the city's core.

By nightfall, Mr. Mubarak, as commander-in-chief, had ordered the Egyptian army to regain control of the capital, where the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was ablaze, and to restore order to other cities around the country where protesters had run amok.

Early Saturday, reports from the scene indicated that the Egyptian army had secured Cairo's famed antiquities museum, arresting looters and protecting thousands of priceless artifacts, including the gold mask of King Tutankhamen.

Some young men - armed with truncheons taken from the police - formed a human chain outside the main entrance in an attempt to protect the collection inside from the looters before the military arrived.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 26, said it was important to guard the museum because it "has 5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we'll never find it again."

Finally, four armored vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-colored building in downtown Cairo. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect mummies, monumental stone statues, ornate royal jewelry and other pharaonic artifacts.

The military is all that stands between Mr. Mubarak and an ignominious end.

"The police have surrendered," said a leading Egyptian journalist for the independent al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. "Now we'll see which way the army goes."

A curfew was declared at sunset as tanks and armoured personnel carriers moved into the city while military helicopters flew overhead.

In the wake of the police departure, thousands of people made their way into Tahrir Square in the centre of the city while dozens of protesters tried unsuccessfully to fight their way into Egypt's state television building.

A large security force formed a protective ring around the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasure.

"Do not push us to use force with you," a senior Egyptian military commander cautioned the people on state television.

By the time Mr. Mubarak spoke to the country the army had taken control of Tahrir Square again. But even the military won't be enough to sustain Mr. Mubarak if his allies and benefactors turn against him.

In Washington Friday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama said the Egyptian government needs to begin immediately implementing economic, political and social reforms.

Fighting broke out as soon as noon prayers finished. At the central mosque in Giza, just south of Cairo, where Mohamed ElBaradei was praying among the crowd, the 2,000 people attending prayers jumped to their feet the instant the last prayer ended. "Freedom, freedom, freedom," they chanted. "Go, go, go Mubarak."

They were met immediately with water cannons and volleys of teargas that sent the crowd running for cover.

They and thousands of other protesters who walked from several Cairo districts fought pitched battles with the riot police who barred the people from the bridges that cross the Nile and lead to Tahrir Square. The city's largest, most symbolic square, it is situated not far from the parliament and Shura Council, as well as the embassies of the United States, Britain and Canada.

Back and forth the fight went as remarkably determined protesters attempted to breach the line of shielded security forces. Time after time they were driven back as particularly strong tear gas rained down on them. And time after time the people regrouped, dried their stinging eyes, wet their burning throats and marched back into the face of the enemy.

"These people are cowards," said Sharif Abdel Monem, a 30-something accountant, referring to the young riot police, most of whom come from poor rural communities. "They should be joining us."

Yasser, an engineer in his late 20s, took refuge after the first shower of teargas then pulled a pair of swimming goggles out of his pack, put on a surgical mask and draped an Egyptian flag over his back like a cape. "It's time for the people to be able to speak freely," he said as he headed back into battle.

It took about eight waves of protesters but the police finally relented and let the people pass onto the bridge that took them to the island of Zamalak in the middle of the Nile.

The victory was short-lived, however, as about one kilometre on they faced a larger force preventing them from crossing the bridge to the mainland.

The government took command of the situation early in the day when it shut down the Internet at midnight. Cellphones were shut down about 10 a.m. and the Blackberry network was off by about 11:30 a.m.

It was an effective tactic. Unable to communicate with each other, the groups proceeded almost leaderless right into the arms of the riot police.

But as darkness fell, something remarkable transpired. Protesters at the 6th of October Bridge fought and won their battle to cross the Nile, then just about the time it was announced that the army was moving in "to assist the police" the security details that had held the bridges and roads suddenly packed up and left.

Thousands of protesters found themselves free to cross to the mainland.

Under cover of darkness some struck out at the headquarters of Mr. Mubarak's party and set it alight. Others set fire to vehicles and stacks of plastic garbage bins. Some of the worst fighting Friday took place in Suez ,where protesters seized weapons and set fire to a police station. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policeman and one protester was killed in the battle.

Thirteen people died in clashes with police on Friday in the canal city of Suez, at least five in Cairo and two in Mansura, north of the capital, with many fatalities caused by rubber-coated bullets, medics and witnesses said.

With a report from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters

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