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Hundreds detained after violent clashes at Egyptian ministry

Egypt's military officials moved swiftly Saturday to prosecute protesters they blamed for an attack on the Defense Ministry, in an attempt to put down increasingly violent protests against their authority just weeks before the country's presidential election.

The fierce street battles Friday raised to new heights the tension between the generals, who assumed power after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last year, and their critics, predominantly secular and liberal groups but now spearheaded by hard-line Islamists.

At least a hundred protesters have been killed in violent confrontations with security agencies since Mubarak's ouster. But the military's response to Friday's demonstration near its headquarters was significant in how swiftly they moved to detain protesters.

Military prosecutors interrogated hundreds of demonstrators, referring some 300 of them to 15 days detention pending investigation into accusations of attacking troops and disrupting public order, a prosecution official said Saturday.

At least two detainees face accusations of killing a soldier in the Friday violence, the official said.

Political tension between the ruling generals and different groups in Egypt has been building during an election run-up marred by legal pitfalls, a lack of clarity in the authorities of the next president and a growing fear among activists that the military is seeking a candidate it can trust to preserve its economic interests and a special political role in the future.

Secular forces have previously accused the generals of clinging to power, but Islamists have only recently joined the chorus.

After issuing warnings against approaching the defense ministry, the military was quick to react when protesters tried to break through the barbed wire. Police forces used water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition to break up the crowd. Hundreds were detained in a security crackdown as the protesters dispersed.

Tensions started to brew a week ago. Protesters, predominantly supporters of an ultraconservative presidential candidate who was barred from the election, held a sit-in outside the ministry starting April 28.

Deadly clashes broke out when apparent supporters of the military rulers attacked the crowd Wednesday.

Nine people were killed in those clashes, which drew in anti-military protesters from different revolutionary groups. They called for a rally Friday, demanding the generals stick to their pledges to step down after the election.

On Saturday, the state-controlled media focused on the Islamist role in the violent clashes, replaying images of young men and women removing the barbed wire, throwing stones and gesturing at the troops.

A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the dead soldier was shot by someone inside the mosque.

The official said a curfew will remain in place again Saturday around the ministry.

In an apparent goodwill gesture, military general prosecutor Adel el-Morsi ordered the release of all female detainees rounded up following the clashes. El-Morsi didn't give a reason, but troops have previously been criticized for targeting female protesters.