By Sarah Mikhail
CAIRO (Reuters) - Fire tore through a seven-storey Interior Ministry building in central Cairo on Tuesday during demonstrations by Egyptian policemen seeking better pay and working conditions.
A ministry source said the fire was probably linked to the demonstrations, without elaborating.
But some witnesses said the protests had been peaceful and accused the officials of using the protests as cover to burn potentially incriminating documents.
Ambulances and at least five fire engines raced to the burning building, part of the Interior Ministry headquarters compound in central Cairo. There were no reports of casualties.
"It is likely to be related to the protests," an Interior Ministry source told Reuters as flames and a column of black smoke billowed up over the center of the city.
But another ministry official said later on Tuesday that the fire was not related to the protests.
"They haven't done anything, and we haven't accused anyone," Mohsen Hefzy, deputy interior minister for security, told a TV show.
Policemen have staged similar strikes and protests since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, and last month about six vehicles were set on fire outside the same compound.
Egypt's military rulers sentenced the suspected arsonists, sacked policemen demanding reinstatement, to jail terms in military prison.
The military cordoned off the building earlier on Tuesday to protect it from the police protesters, the state news agency reported. Witnesses put the number of protesters at about 3,000.
A number of other security buildings were set ablaze earlier this month, and witnesses at the time said police had been burning secret documents that could incriminate security officials. Police also blamed protesters for those fires.
"This is a movie sequel, like when state security shredded papers that would put them in trouble," said Abdullah Abdel Rahim, a witness who said he had been standing in front of the building at the time.
"These are remnants of men abusing the protest to burn their papers."
Oussama Mohammed, another witness, said: "I saw the protesters they were standing peacefully. Nobody was doing anything and all of a sudden I saw explosion of fire at the roof top."
The protesters on Tuesday had held aloft signs reading: "Where is social justice for policemen?" and "We want the cancellation of military trials," reflecting fears that they will face prosecution for police violations under Mubarak.
Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy was appointed as part of a cabinet reshuffle that purged remaining members Mubarak's administration.
Essawy met representatives of the protesters and promised to work to resolve their demands, the state news agency reported.
Since Essawy's appointment, the ministry has announced the dissolution of the hated state security agency, whose reputation for brutality helped ignite the revolt against Mubarak.
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Sherine El Madany, Writing by Edmund Blair/Tom Perry, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)