Egypt's military insisted on Wednesday that soldiers did not kill protesters during a weekend clash that killed 25 people, most of them Coptic Christians, in the deadliest sectarian violence in decades.
Coptic witnesses said they were fired upon by soldiers when a march on Sunday turned violent and that several protesters were killed when military armoured vehicles ran them over.
"Who killed them? We are still searching for the answer," General Mahmud Hegazi of the country's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) told a news conference.
"Did the armed forces kill them? Certainly not," he said. A number of soldiers also died in the clashes, he said, adding the military did not want to give a toll to avoid affecting the troops' morale.
Hegazi spoke of a vague plot by "enemies of the nation who want to abort the revolution," but declined to specify who these were.
The military, in charge since a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February, usually blames former regime loyalists or foreign plotters for unrest in Egypt.
Sunday's violence, after thousands of Copts marched on state television's building to protest over an attack on a church, has shaken the Christian minority which complains of discrimination and regular attacks.
Witnesses told AFP at a hospital morgue after the clashes that soldiers had shot the dead protesters or crushed them with armoured personnel carriers.
General Adel Umara, another SCAF member, denied at the news conference that military vehicles ran down demonstrators.
"This cannot be attributed to the armed forces, and this cannot be recorded in history, that the armed forces ran over people," he said.
Umara said "that maybe someone was hit" mistakenly by military vehicles, but he would not confirm that.
The generals showed video footage of protesters attacking military vehicles, one of which crashed into parked military trucks as the driver tried to escape. They said he swerved into the trucks to avoid demonstrators.
Hegazi said Egyptian soldiers never fire on citizens.
He said military weapons "were deadly," and "if these weapons are used the consequences would be catastrophic, and that has not happened."
Umara said that the soldiers "did not have live bullets."
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The generals also showed footage of protesters clashing with military police outside the state television building, and Umara said some demonstrators "were armed with sticks, swords and firebombs."
The carnage has brought fears of an eruption of sectarian violence, sparked by a recent attack on a renovated village church in the southern province of Aswan that led to Sunday's deadly Cairo protest.
The clashes have brought growing anger to the Arab world's most populous country, and condemnation abroad.
The US State Department said on Tuesday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr to express "deep concern about the violence."
She urged Egypt's rulers to "address sectarian tension" and ensure religious and civil rights were respected.
Dozens of Copts have been killed this year in sectarian attacks or clashes.
Egypt's deputy premier Hazem al-Beblawi said on Tuesday he was resigning because despite having no direct involvement in the clashes, the government ultimately bore responsibility.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler, rejected the resignation.
With more than 300 people also injured in the protest, there has been furious condemnation of the leadership's handling of the transition from Mubarak's ousted government.
Military prosecutors said they have remanded 28 people in custody -- both Muslims and Christians -- for 15 days pending investigations, the official MENA news agency reported.
The military tasked Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's government with forming an immediate fact-finding panel to investigate the clashes.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville has urged the authorities "to ensure the impartiality and independence of any investigation undertaken into the incident."
Political and religious leaders have also held crisis talks amid fears of widespread sectarian unrest.
Copts comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt's mainly Muslim population of 80 million.
The Coptic Orthodox Church accused "infiltrators" of triggering the street battle, while Egypt's top Muslim official, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, urged the cabinet to issue a unified law on building places of worship.
Pope Benedict XVI urged Egypt on Wednesday to fight "attempts to sabotage" relations between Christians and Muslims.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said Egypt's military "must urgently explain how a protest against religious discrimination turned into a bloodbath."