CAIRO (Reuters) - Armed men in plain clothes attacked protesters demanding reform of Egypt's notoriously brutal security services outside police headquarters in Cairo on Sunday, witnesses said.
Egyptian soldiers had fired into the air for several minutes to disperse hundreds of protesters outside the police offices in central Cairo, the latest in a series of demonstrations targeting security service offices, the witnesses said.
It appeared to be the first time armed men in plain clothes had deployed in force to confront reform activists in Cairo since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
Witnesses said the armed men then hurled bricks and petrol bombs, reminiscent of scenes in protests against Mubarak's rule a few weeks ago when Mubarak loyalists attacked demonstrators in central Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In the last two days, protesters have broken into 11 state security offices across the country, seizing documents and citing fears that officers would destroy them to cover up abuses perpetrated by the force.
"The army started firing in the air to disperse us," said Mohammed Fahmy. "We tried to run away but we were met by 200 thugs in plain clothes carrying sharp weapons on the other side," he said, putting the number of protesters at 2,000.
The state news agency said hundreds of protesters had tried to break into the headquarters of state security. They want its dissolution and see it as a threat to their revolution for change and a move to democratic, transparent government.
"There were simple altercations between the men of the armed forces and the protesters because of their insistence on storming the building and the soldiers' attempts to disperse them calmly," MENA reported.
Marwan Ehab, a student, said the protesters had been attacked by "thugs" wielding machetes and swords. "People were screaming 'the thugs are coming'," he said. The protesters then scattered, he said.
(Reporting by Marwa Awad; Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Louise Ireland)