Top Egyptian security officials defended army and police actions in clashes Monday in Cairo that led to the deaths of more than 50 people, saying they were defending the Republican Guard headquarters against attackers.
Health Ministry official Khaled al-Khatib said 51 died and 435 others were wounded when Egyptian security forces fought with supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood outside the headquarters.
Witnesses said the military and police fired as protesters took a break from holding a vigil at the Republican Guard headquarters to perform their dawn prayers. Morsy was reportedly detained in the building after his arrest Wednesday.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif and army spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said security forces were under attack. Ali said that around 4 a.m. "an armed group" used bombs, rocks and bullets to attack the area and the people safeguarding the headquarters building.
Speaking to reporters, the officers said it's the job of the security forces to protect protesters. But, they said, what unfolded was an assault and they had to embark on defending the institution.
Ali dismissed claims from the pro-Morsy opposition, such as the killing of children, and warned of "lying," "rumors," and "psychological warfare." Video meant to support the security forces' position was shown at the news conference. They seemed to show a few protesters who may have had firearms, but the context of the images is hard to discern.
The Freedom and Justice Party's deputy chairman, Esam al Aryan, said on the group's Facebook site that four children were killed.
Speaking about the presence of children before dawn, Ali asked what kind of people would bring their children to that location at such a time.
"The Egyptian armed forces kills only its enemies. It will never kill its own children," Ali said.
Mirna El Helbawi, a witness who lives on a street near the Republican Guard headquarters, saw violence unfold in the area but stressed no one had been performing prayers at the time. Security forces, she said, arrived at the scene, apparently prompting pro-Morsy people to beat on street lamps and shout, "They're here. They're here."
Soldiers approaching a nearby mosque tore down stone barricades erected by pro-Morsy groups and fired tear gas. Pro-Morsy protesters, atop the mosque, threw rocks and fired shots. She said she saw one security forces member go down and then be taken away by his comrades.
While she heard shotgun bursts, El Helbawi said she is not sure which group initiated the shooting. But she said she is sure both groups were shooting at each other.
She also saw fire inside the mosque, a flame that died down and then flared up. She saw an ambulance arrive to get people out of the mosque and about a half dozen bodies were retrieved, she said. Several people were arrested.
Amnesty International called Monday for an urgent independent investigation into the 51 deaths.
"There is a crucial need for independent and impartial investigations that can be trusted by all sides. However, Egypt's authorities have a poor track record of delivering truth and justice for human rights violations," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, in a news release.
Victims treated at a chaotic facility
The Monday morning violence further deepened a crisis in the country -- the Arab world's most populous -- where Morsy supporters have been squaring off daily with security forces after his ouster in a military coup last week.
CNN counted at least eight bullet-riddled bodies and up to 40 wounded at the chaotic emergency facility in the Egyptian capital, down the street from the site of the shooting. The upper bodies of the victims appeared to be peppered with shotgun pellets and bullet wounds.
Doctors tended to the victims, performing surgeries in many cases before shipping them out to other facilities. Egyptian flags were draped over those who did not survive.
CNN shot footage of men bleeding and bandaged on gurneys and blood on the ground. There were not enough ambulances to take all the injured to hospitals, CNN's Karl Penhaul reported on the scene.
An Interior Ministry statement earlier said two security force members -- a lieutenant and a recruit -- were shot and killed. It is unclear if the Health Ministry toll includes these personnel.
Reacting to the shooting at the Republican Guard headquarters, the Al-Nour party -- which supported Morsy's ouster -- withdrew from all talks about forming an interim government.
"We will not remain silent on the Republican Guard massacre," party spokesman Nader Bakkar said. Interim President Adly Mansour ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the incident, according to state-run Nile TV.
Later, news outlet Al Jazeera posted a statement online on its English Facebook page speaking out against what it said was the intimidation of its journalists covering the unrest.
Dozens of journalists have been rounded up and detained by authorities, the post says. Journalists' offices have been raided, "threatening leaflets" have been scattered outside Al Jazeera's offices and "Al Jazeera Arabic's correspondent" was "hounded out of a government press conference by attendees who applauded" when the event ended, the post says.