By Tom Perry and Noah Browning
CAIRO (Reuters) - They fell one by one, picked off by gunmen who aimed for the chest and head, witnesses said. Some of the dead, supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi, were shot between the eyes.
In one of the bloodiest incidents since Mursi was removed from power by the army, the violence started around midnight with a barrage of teargas fired by police to drive his Muslim Brotherhood backers away from a major Cairo flyover.
By the time it ended some nine hours later, dozens lay dead, killed by what Mursi supporters described as a shooting spree by security forces lasting from dawn until about 9 a.m.
"It was like an execution," said Abdulrahman Ismail, 23, a Brotherhood activist who witnessed the violence.
As on July 8, when more than 50 of Mursi's supporters were killed outside a military barracks, the government accused the Islamists of instigating the violence.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the Brotherhood was exaggerating the death toll for political ends, denied using lethal force and accused the Islamists of opening fire.
In the early stages of the violence, a Reuters journalist saw one policeman hit by gunshot. A security official said a dozen policemen were wounded by gunshots and rocks overall.
But the bodies piled up fast at the makeshift morgue in the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp where the Brotherhood has vowed to dig in until Mursi is reinstated as president. At 7:30 a.m., a Reuters journalist counted 20 corpses covered by white sheets.
By the time the violence subsided, there were 36 in the blood-splattered room.
Other bodies were taken elsewhere: some two dozen went to a nearby hospital. Some of the dead were carried wrapped in blankets, others on planks of wood.
A Reuters witness saw one, apparently a teenager, with a gaping hole in his blood-soaked head.
As volunteers washed away pools of blood at the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in, the killing appeared only to harden the defiance of the Islamists facing the threat of eviction by authorities.
Brotherhood activists manning makeshift fortifications carried metal shields painted in the Egyptian national colors and stamped with the slogan "Martyr in the Making".
The government appeared to receive a popular nod of approval for tougher action against the Brotherhood when hundreds of thousands took to the streets on Friday in response to army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's call for a protest against "violence and terrorism".
But witnesses among the Brotherhood protesters said the military had not taken part in the night's violence, only the police, who are under the Interior Ministry, and thugs in plain clothes.
"IT WASN'T RANDOM"
"It wasn't random gunfire," said Mahmoud Seif, 23, a Brotherhood activist who witnessed events unfold through the night and into the morning. "Two people died, one on either side of me. Both were hit in the head," he told Reuters at a clinic where the wounded were still coming in.
A Reuters cameraman filming the violence saw one youth fall to the ground after he was hit by gunfire and dozens more ferried away by ambulances during a half-hour spell of the shooting.
Dr. Ibtisam Zein, overseeing the Brotherhood morgue, said most of the dead were hit in the head, some between the eyes.
The trouble began when Brotherhood protesters approached the 6th of October Bridge - a flyover and major Cairo traffic artery. The minister said they had clashed with residents there, and that police fired teargas to separate the sides.
Mursi supporters said the gas was accompanied by birdshot fire. For the next few hours, teargas and rocks flew as Mursi supporters faced off with the security forces along the highway near the site where Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist gunmen in 1981.
Around dawn, the gunfire suddenly intensified, multiple witnesses in the Brotherhood protest camp said. "Man, people were just dropping," said Ahmed El-Nashar, a 34-year-old consultant, speaking English in an American accent.
"All the night it was running street battles - back and forth, back and forth," he said. "The basic tactic of the police was to fire gas bombs, then stun grenades, then they would shoot birdshot," he said.
"There were several dozen, maybe a hundred police in total, and several hundred plain-clothed men hurling rocks and firing home-made guns," he said. "There were snipers on the rooftops, I could hear the bullets whizzing past me."
It echoed, in less lethal terms, Brotherhood accounts of several other incidents this week in which its supporters have been killed by men in plain clothes. "We were running, the snipers began firing, and the people started dropping around me. Many people," said Musab Nabil, 22.
Names of the dead were written in black marker pen on some of the shrouds. Others had yet to be identified. There were chaotic scenes as men sought out missing family members.
"I just want to know if my brother is dead or alive," said one man as he remonstrated with a volunteer supervising access to the morgue. The arrival of another corpse was met by screams of "There is no God but God!"
"Sisi thinks if he kills 100, 200, 1,000, then the people will be afraid and leave. But the people are steadfast," said Seif.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Ali and Ashraf Fahim; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sonya Hepinstall)