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fighter jet
An Egyptian air force fighter plane flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir square in Cairo January 30, 2011. - Photo by Reuters

CAIRO: Egypt's most prominent advocate for reform called on Sunday for President Hosni Mubarak to resign after the powerful military stepped up its presence across the anarchic capital, closing roads with tanks and sending F-16 fighter jets streaking over Tahrir Square, the rallying point for protesters.

The army's show of force appeared aimed at quelling looting, armed robbery and arson that broke out alongside pro-democracy protests and have turned the cultural heart of the Arab world into a tableau of once-unimaginable scenes of chaos.

The official death toll from five days of growing crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated that the actual toll was at least 125.

Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn, helping to free hundreds of militants and thousands of other inmates. Among the freed prisoners were eight members of radical Palestinian groups who escaped from Cairo's Abu Zaabal jail. Two of them even managed to make their way into the Gaza Strip.

The freed prisoners included 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Security officials said several inmates were killed and wounded, but gave no specific figures.

State television showed images of President Mubarak during what it said was a visit to the country's military command centre. The president looked sombre and fatigued in his first public appearance since he addressed the nation late on Friday to promise reform and announce the dismissal of his cabinet.

The brief footage appeared designed to project an image of normality.

The crisis deepened on Sunday after police disappeared from the streets. Egyptians faced lawlessness on the streets with security forces and citizens trying to stop looters.

Through the night into Sunday, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighbourhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters.

As the United States called for an “orderly transition”, Mr Mubarak's disparate opponents, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, rallied behind Mohamed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to lead possible talks with the army on organising a handover of power to a national unity coalition.

“I ask of you patience, change is coming in the next few days,” Mr Baradei told thousands of demonstrators on Tahrir Square after dark. “You have taken back your rights and what we have begun, cannot go back.”

He added: “We have one main demand — the end of the regime tomorrow, if not today.”

The military made no attempt to disperse 10,000 protesters gathered at Tahrir Square, a plaza in the heart of downtown that protesters have occupied since Friday afternoon. They have violated the curfew to call for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak's government, which they blame for poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality.

In surreal scenes, soldiers from the army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: “Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt.”

Asked how they could let people scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their mostly American-made vehicles, one soldier said: “These are written by the people, it's the views of the people.”

The government interfered with internet access and mobile phone signals to try and disrupt demonstrators' plans.

It also ordered the Al Jazeera television channel to shut down and cut off its local broadcasts.

On the first day of trading across the Mideast after a weekend of protests and violence, nervous investors drove stocks down sharply.

Crowds of foreigners filled Cairo's international airport, desperate and unable to leave because dozens of flights were cancelled and delayed.

Young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.

The lawlessness, uncertainty, and indications of an attempted exodus from Cairo were gravely damaging Egypt's economy, particularly tourism, which accounts for as much as 11 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

Banks were closed on orders from Egypt's central bank, and the country's stock market was shut on what is normally the first day of the trading week.

Banks were told not to work on Monday, too.

The US embassy in Cairo told its citizens in Egypt to consider leaving the country as soon as possible, and said it had authorised the voluntary departure of dependents and non-emergency employees, a display of Washington's escalating concern about the stability of its closest Arab ally.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed for an orderly transition to lasting democracy in Egypt, saying the US expects that the protests will lead to free and fair elections.

“I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future,” she said. “It's not a question of who retains power ... It's how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people.”

Israel's prime minister told his cabinet that he was “anxiously following” the crisis, saying in his first public comments on the situation that Israel's three-decade-old peace agreement with Egypt must be preserved.

SECURITY VACUUM Widespread looting and attacks erupted after police virtually disappeared on Friday evening, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops, backed by tanks at key sites around this city of 18 million people.

The military has been generally welcomed by demonstrators across Cairo, unlike the widely despised police, and the army sent hundreds more troops and armoured vehicles onto the streets starting Sunday morning.

In the afternoon, truckloads of hundreds of police poured back into Cairo neighbourhoods and took up positions on the streets.

Interior Minister Habib al-Adly told police commanders he was ordering security forces to return to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere to work in tandem with army troops to restore order.

“It is necessary that the police role is quickly restored and that there should be cooperation in the field with the armed forces ... to defend the presence and future of the nation,” he said.

In some spots, cops were jeered by residents who chanted anti-police slogans and demanded that they only be allowed to deploy jointly with the military.

In one part of Tahrir Square, soldiers working with civilian protester volunteers were even checking IDs and bags of people arriving at the square, saying they were searching for weapons and making sure plainclothes police did not enter the square.

“The army is protecting us, they won't let police infiltrators sneak in!” one volunteer shouted.

Then, minutes before the start of a curfew, at least two jets roared over the Nile and toward Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, where thousands of protesters have gathered every day to demand the end of the administration.

The jets made several passes over the square, dropping lower every time and setting off alarms in parked cars.

Some protesters clapped and waved to them while others jeered. Lines of army tanks jammed a road leading into Tahrir, and a military helicopter hovered overhead.

“This is terrorism, they are trying to scare the people with the planes and the tanks. They are trying to make people afraid and leave the square,” said Gamal Ahmed, a 40-year-old air-conditioning technician.

By evening the presence of devout Muslims in the square was conspicuous, suggesting a significant Muslim Brotherhood representation. Hundreds performed the Maghrib prayers. Veiled women prayed separately.

El-Baradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, left after his brief appearance, and some demonstrators dismissed him as an expatriate long removed from the country's problems.

“Many people feel he loves prizes and travelling abroad,” said Mohammad Munir, 27. “He's not really one of the people.”

About two hours later the government announced that it was moving the start of the curfew from 4pm to 3pm. The widely ignored ban on movement outdoors still ends at 8am.

President Mubarak, 82, perpetuated the overriding role of military men in Egyptian politics on Saturday by naming his intelligence chief, former army general Omar Suleiman, to the new role of vice president. Ahmed Shafiq, the outgoing civil aviation minister and Mubarak's fellow former air force officer, was named prime minister.

In the southern city of Assiut, officials said riot police stormed the city's main prison to quell a prison riot, using tear gas and batons against inmates. A reporter saw army tanks were deployed outside the prison, on bridges straddling the Nile and at the police headquarters.

Thousands of Alexandrians met to pray in downtown Alexandria, a Mediterranean port city that is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. After prayers, the crowd marched towards the city's old mosque to pray for the souls of those who died in the protests.

Authorities ordered the Al Jazeera television channel to close its Cairo news hub overseeing coverage of the country's massive street protests.

The network described the move as an attempt to “stifle and repress” open reporting.

The Qatar-based network has given nearly round-the-clock coverage to the unprecedented uprising against Mr Mubarak and had faced criticism by some government supporters and other Arab leaders as a forum to inspire more unrest.---Agencies