REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- A fourth day of clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square brought the death toll to 13 Monday as Egypt's interim leaders defended their handling of protests and demonstrators continued to call for the military to relinquish its control of the government.
The Ministry of Health said three protesters died Monday after soldiers swept into the encampment where hundreds of Egyptians have been demonstrating since last month. Witnesses and local media reported that as many as six people were killed, though the figures could not be verified.
The renewed violence comes as Egypt carries out a historic three-stage parliamentary election, which so far has given the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties a commanding lead.
Since ousting former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, protesters have returned to Tahrir Square several times -- most recently in November -- complaining that the military-led Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is moving too slowly to turn over authority to a civilian government. Presidential elections aren't planned until mid-2012, while balloting for parliament, whose primary task will be drafting a new constitution, won't be complete until next month.
On Monday, military police used live ammunition to pursue protesters near a mosque in Tahrir Square during an early-morning raid, according to local media. "It was like a rain of bullets in the early morning," medic Ahmed Saad told the Associated Press.
During a funeral conducted inside the square later in the day, hundreds of protesters carried the body of one of those killed Monday.
During a news conference Monday afternoon, Gen. Adel Emara, a member of the military council, insisted that "no violence was deployed by the army against protesters" and that the "army and police forces kept self-control when facing protesters, who assaulted a number of the police and army officers securing the parliament’s building."
As they have before, military officials accused protesters of working with foreign elements to create chaos in Egypt. "There is a methodical and orchestrated plot to topple the state, but Egypt has not and will never fall," Emara said.
He defended the army's reaction, saying it had to protect government buildings and accusing protesters of attempting to vandalize and burn some facilities with gasoline bombs. The Egyptian Scientific Institute, which contains more than 200,000 rare documents and ancient books, was heavily damaged by fire over the weekend.
Asked about video footage depicting heavy-handed tactics, Emara said the council would investigate some of the incidents, including the attack against the female protester, whose shirt was stripped off by officers during the struggle.
"As an Egyptian and as a father, I'm very sorry to see a picture like this," he said. "But we need to ask about all the surrounding conditions before questioning a certain action."
On Sunday, U.S. and U.N. officials condemned the violence. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the military's use of force “excessive," while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the army to respect the rights of peaceful protesters and called on demonstrators to refrain from acts of violence.
-- Amro Hassan. Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Photo: Egyptians on Monday carry the body of a protester killed during recent clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Associated Press