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Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters gathered on Friday for what they dubbed the “day of departure” of President Hosni Mubarak, hours after he issued a fresh rebuff to calls for him to stand down
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Demonstrators crowded into Tahrir Square in central Cairo, centre of the 10-day uprising, on a crucial day in the battle between two entrenched sides each seeking to break the other.

Meanwhile, US officials said talks were under way between the Obama administration and senior Egyptian officials on the possible immediate resignation of Mr Mubarak and the formation of a military-backed caretaker government.

With protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities expected to grow in size and intensity on Friday, the US administration fears they may erupt into more widespread violence unless the government takes tangible steps to address the protesters’ main demand that Mr Mubarak leave office quickly.

“The [US] president has said that now is the time to begin a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition, with credible, inclusive negotiations,’’ National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward, but all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people.’’

The protests have emerged as an unexpected existential challenge to Mr Mubarak’s near 30-year rule, but some of his supporters launched a violent counter-attack this week and the leader himself warned the country risked sliding into chaos if he leaves now.

Some Egyptians not involved in the protests on either side have begun expressing frustration with the sustained demonstrations. In some neighbourhoods, residents manning impromptu checkpoints have been monitoring cars to make sure they are not taking food to the Tahrir Square demonstrators.

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But protesters said the violent response of pro- Mubarak mobs had made them more determined to push the president from power straight away.

“We are still waiting for our demands to be answered and now it’s even more severe than before. This is not acceptable on a humanitarian level,” said one protester.

Demonstrators said Thursday night in the Tahrir Square area had been much quieter than the previous day, which had seen repeated gunfire and running battles from dusk until dawn with Molotov cocktails, stones and other debris.

Egypt’s defence minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi paid his first visit to Tahrir Square, on Friday morning and spoke to the army at the square’s northern entrance near the Egyptian museum.

The army had surrounded the square with tanks and armoured vehicles and erected barbed wire barriers. At one entrance it was letting people in through a small gap, creating a choke point as people queued to join the growing crowd.

Protesters also gathered in their thousands in Alexandria after Friday prayers, chanting demands for Mr Mubarak to resign.

Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s recently appointed vice-president, on Thursday issued a rare invitation to the banned Muslim Brotherhood for talks – an offer swiftly rejected by Egypt’s best-organised opposition group.

Mohammed al-Beltagi, a leading member of the Islamist movement, told Al Jazeera television on Friday that government representatives had indicated that the group, which is formally banned, would receive official recognition as a party.

“We are ready to negotiate after [the end of] the Mubarak regime,” he said, adding that the government was “flirting” with the group. “We have said clearly that we have no ambitions to run for the presidency, or posts in a coalition government.”

In a sign of the conflicting signals sent out by the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood said that police had raided the offices of Al-Ikhwan Online, the group’s website, early on Friday and arrested between 15 and 20 people, as well as removing their computers.

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