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Members of Congress attend classified presentation of evidence after John Kerry mounts defence of plan for military action vote

The Obama administration has begun the tough task of persuading sceptical members of Congress that they should authorise military action against Syria, as secretary of state John Kerry claimed the US had evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack outside Damascus last month that killed 1,400 people.

A classified briefing was held on Capitol Hill on Sunday a few hours after Kerry made the rounds of all five Sunday talk shows in the US, mounting a strong defence of President Obama’s unexpected plan to allow Congress a vote on military action against the Syrian government.

Presented with the awkward scenario that Congress would not back Obama, Kerry stressed that the president had the power to act anyway. But Kerry said he was confident of a yes vote. “We don’t contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no,” Kerry told CNN.

As members of Congress emerged from the briefing, it was clear that the Obama administration could not be sure of the outcome of the president’s high-risk strategy. In particular, Obama could not count on his own party to deliver the votes. “I don’t know if every member of Congress is there yet,” said Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat who said she would vote no on authorising a military strike. “The room was sceptical,” said Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.

The briefing took place after Kerry conducted a back-to-back round of television interviews to press home the case for military strikes. Kerry, one of the leading advocates of a military assault on the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, outlined new evidence he said the administration had obtained about the chemical attacks outside Damascus in August. He said blood and hair samples from first responders who helped victims of the attacks had tested positive for indicators of the nerve agent sarin.

Kerry said the evidence had come through a “secure chain of custody”, but not from United Nations weapons inspectors. He did not give any further details of the source for the samples, nor where or when they had been tested. The new evidence bolstered the case for action, Kerry said. “Each day that goes by this case is even stronger,” he told CNN.

On Sunday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, asked chemical weapons inspectors to speed up their investigation because of the “horrendous magnitude” of the attack in Syria.

Ban spoke by phone with the head of the team, Ake Sellstr m, the Swedish scientist who returned from Syria to The Hague on Saturday. The UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, briefing reporters at UN headquarters in New York, said Ban had asked for the process of analysing samples taken from the sites of the 21 August attack to be conducted as quickly as possible in keeping with the requirements of scientific stringency.

“The whole process will be done strictly adhering to the highest established standards of verification recognised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Nesirky said.

The samples are scheduled to be sent to laboratories in Finland and Sweden on Monday. On Friday, the UN estimated the process would take about two weeks but the findings now seem to likely to be delivered before that.

At an emergency meeting in Cairo, the Arab League called on the United Nations and the international community to take “deterrent” measures under international law to stop the Syrian regime’s crimes, but could not agree on whether to back US military action. In their closing statement, Arab foreign ministers held the Assad regime responsible for the “heinous” chemical attack, saying the perpetrators should be tried before an international court “like other war criminals”.

In Syria, Assad poured scorn on Obama, saying in comments carried by state media that Damascus was “capable of confronting any external aggression.”

Opposition figures reacted with exasperation to what they perceive as Obama’s delay in striking against Assad. While the Obama administration insists that the exclusive purpose of any such military attack would be to punish the chemical weapons attack and deter future use, the fractious and diverse opposition hopes the anticipated US strike will finally tip the military balance in their favour, something they have not managed decisively in a two-and-a-half year civil war that has killed nearly 100,000 people.

Samir Nishar of the opposition Syrian National Coalition called Obama a “weak president”, according to CNN.

Kerry reacted to the Syrian opposition’s evident disappointment by suggesting that Obama will not limit US involvement in the foreign civil war to cruise missile strikes tethered to chemical weapons. The administration “may even be able to provide greater support to the opposition”, Kerry said. Obama authorised the provision of weapons to Syrian rebels after determining earlier this year that Assad had carried out a smaller-scale chemical attack.

Deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war has prompted reluctance within the US military to bless even a one-off military strike. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a multi-tour veteran of Iraq, has voiced such fears for more than two years.

But Congressional hawks say Obama has not gone far enough. Senator John McCain, one of the most interventionist Republicans, said the administration needed to have a more decisive plan to topple the Assad regime. He warned against the possibility of Congress defying the president. “The consequences of a Congress of the United States over-riding a decision of the president of the United States on this magnitude are really very serious,” he told Face the Nation on CBS.

McCain and his fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham said earlier this weekend that they wanted any military campaign to “achieve the president’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict”. Kerry, responding to McCain and Graham, said he was confident the two senators would become convinced that “there will be additional pressure” on Assad.

“A strategy is in place in order to help the opposition and change the dynamics of what is happening in Syria,” Kerry told ABC News, while simultaneously denying the US would get sucked into the mire of the civil war.

Before Sunday’s classified briefing, some leading legislators predicted that Obama would win a vote of the kind that his UK counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron, unexpectedly lost last week. “At the end of the day, Congress will rise to the occasion,” Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN. “This is a national security issue.”

Others were less sure. Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican, put the chances of an authorisation vote in the House of Representatives at 50-50. “I think the Senate will rubber stamp what he wants but the House will be a much closer vote,” he told NBC.

Legislators estimated that between 100 and 150 members of Congress attended Sunday’s classified briefing in the basement of the US Capitol, representing approximately a fifth of the Senate and House. Deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken was scheduled to be joined in the basement auditorium by four colleagues from the state department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the military’s joint staff and the Pentagon’s policy directorate.

Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, praised Obama for going to Congress, even as Rigell said he would not vote for the resolution. “What I wrestle with, and of course I am continuing to wrestle with this, is how do we define success and our objective, and a full understanding and consideration of the ramifications,” Rigell said.

He said he was troubled by the likelihood that “the Assad regime is still there” after a strike.

Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he would support a strike, declaring himself persuaded that the Assad regime had crossed “a red line that began to be drawn a hundred years ago”.

Asked how US involvement in Syria ends – with the strikes being a one-off affair or a prelude to deeper US military engagement – Levin said, “I don’t think anybody’s quite sure, but I think we know where we need to start.”

Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said he left the briefing with questions about US strategy toward Syria, but also with questions about whether Assad would be strengthened if Congress voted against a strike, as the British parliament did last week.

Cummings said the draft authorisation for a military strike that Obama sent to Congress was “very, very broad,” giving him pause. “I want to know exactly what the game plan is after this,” Cummings said. “How will this strike lead, as the resolution says, to a diplomatic resolution of this issue?”

He left the briefing unsure if Obama would abide by the final vote on the Syria authorisation, which could come as early as next week, when Congress returns from summer recess. “I don’t know,” Cummings said. “I’m pretty sure they will, but I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.

With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.

In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.

Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.

“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Hope is tempered by caution both among Iranians and in the west, where some see an opportunity to repair relations

A young Iranian couple, Masoud Bastani and Mahsa Amr-Abadi, both journalists and both imprisoned on account of their writing, have seen very little of each other for the past four years. Like many Iranian prisoners they were granted occasional temporary releases, but officials always made sure they were not allowed out at the same time.

“The authorities wanted to make life yet more miserable for the two, like an extra punishment,” said one of their friends. Their convictions were for colluding and spreading propaganda against the state, a frequent charge against dissidents and independent journalists. This month, however, Bastani and Amr-Abadi were reunited at their house in Tehran, and pictures on Facebook showing the smiling couple embracing one another delighted their friends and followers.

Their newfound happiness is one of a number of small signs of change after the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, a veteran pragmatist who ran on an ambitiously reformist platform. With a week until Rouhani’s inauguration, such signs have fuelled hope that a peaceful “Iranian spring” could be on the way, reversing the intensifying repression of the last eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet those hopes are tempered by bitter experience. Green shoots of civic freedoms and human rights were even more apparent under the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and at the peak of the 2009 opposition Green movement, only to be emphatically quashed by conservatives in the regime and security forces.

There is even greater caution in the west about the possibility of a better relationship with Tehran and perhaps even a deal to defuse the long and dangerous standoff over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. National security and the nuclear programme in particular are very much the preserve of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But optimists hope that the intense economic pressures on Iran – amplified by severe US and European sanctions – that helped carry Rouhani to victory will drive the regime towards a historic compromise.

Rouhani has not yet formed a government, so the hopes and doubts swirling around his presidency are based mostly on speculation. However, Iranians report that since the election there has been a distinct thaw in the air.

Bastani and Amr-Abadi are not alone. More temporary releases have been handed out and a handful of the political prisoners recently granted leave have been told they need not return to jail provided they stay out of trouble. Others have been told they will be released on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday next month marking the end of Ramadan. Those on trial for political offences say they have been promised acquittal or light sentences. One recently released activist said his interrogators had been noticeably more polite, as if sensing the winds of change.

The new mood has been apparent among the police on the street. As millions of jubilant Iranians poured on to the streets to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup days after the election, the police tolerated public music, dancing and slogans chanted in favour of imprisoned opposition leaders, which would have been suppressed only days before.

Last week 25 independent Iranian documentary film-makers accused of working clandestinely inside the country for the BBC’s Persian service were all acquitted, even though at least 10 of them had previously been found guilty. The film-makers were alleged to have supplied the BBC with information, footage, news and reports misrepresenting Iran, leading to fears some would be charged with espionage. However, the country’s cinema organisation, affiliated to the powerful ministry for culture and Islamic guidance, surprised many by ruling that “none of the works was found to be propaganda against the ruling system and none contained anti-revolution material”.

At the same time, local media appear to be pushing back previously rigid boundaries. The semi-official Isna news agency broke a taboo by printing the names of opposition leaders under house arrest.

Summing up the popular mood, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was blocked from standing in the election, said on Thursday: “The election’s result has brought hope, peace and rationality to our country.”

Even as they celebrate, many Iranians acknowledge they may be suffering from over-exuberance in view of the limited real changes to date and their extreme fragility. On Facebook and Twitter, the two-word post-election chant “Rouhani Mochakerim” (Rouhani thank you!), is increasingly used ironically as universal expression of gratitude for everyday occurrences (“My brother just passed his exams – Rouhani thank you!”).

The past few weeks have not just been a series of prisoner releases. There have been occasional political arrests too, such as that of the journalist Fariba Pajouh.

Faraz Sanei, of Human Rights Watch, said it was too early to declare a new Iranian spring on the basis of a few rays of sunshine. “Rouhani’s win was certainly a surprise to most analysts, but it is not an indication that reformists will have the upper hand during the next four years,” he said.

Rouhani’s impact on Iran’s relations with the rest of the world is even harder to predict. Khamenei set the tone for national security and foreign policy in the Ahmadinejad era and made clear during the election campaign that he did not intend to change under the new president.

There are signs that the regime intends to use Rouhani’s softer image to try to win more friends abroad. The government has broken with previous practice to invite foreign leaders – with the exceptions of US and Israel – to the inauguration next Sunday.

The foreign ministry even mounted something of a charm offensive in the direction of the UK, seen in ruling circles as Iran’s third worst adversary. On the occasion of the birth of Prince George, the ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi, a UK-educated fluent English speaker, offered congratulations to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.

The conservative backlash to those comments, however, served to underline the scale of the challenge facing the new government in attempting a rapprochement with the west. Araghchi was fiercely criticised by parliamentary rightwingers, and state TV broadcast a furious diatribe describing the Queen as an “iron-fisted dictator” who chose members of parliament and filled key positions by appointment. “England has one of the most reactionary and medieval forms of governments,” the report from London declared.

Ali Ansari, professor of modern history at Saint Andrews University, said the regime would ultimately have to resolve its contradictory views on dealing with the west. “The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

The mixed messages emanating from Tehran have deepened divisions in the west over how to respond to the dawning of the Rouhani age. The UK government has opted not to send officials to the inauguration, arguing that to do so would be to break with the common EU position that only local ambassadors should attend. (The UK has not had a diplomatic presence in Tehran since its embassy was stormed by a mob in November 2011.)

That decision was quickly condemned by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, as “a misjudgment and a missed opportunity”. Ben Wallace, Conservative chairman of the British-Iran parliamentary group, also voiced concern that western mis-steps could undermine the new president. “Rouhani has a real task ahead. He has to balance the politics inside Iran while at the same time trying to bring Iran into the mainstream of the international community,” Wallace said. “The danger for him and for peace is if the US and the UK move the goalposts

and are seen to be hypocritical in support of repressive Sunni regimes yet tough on the Shia nation of Iran.”

The uncertainty over how to respond to Rouhani’s rise is even more pronounced across the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, passed a message purportedly from Rouhani to the White House, saying that the new president was interested in direct negotiations. As an apparent sweetener to encourage such sentiments, Washington has tweaked its draconian sanctions to allow the transfer of more medical equipment. At the same time, however, the Republican-run House of Representatives is preparing to vote on the imposition of even more stringent sanctions before going on its August recess. A joint letter by two retired senior US officers, General Joseph Hoar and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, and Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, published on The Hill’s congressional blog said: “Rouhani’s election represents what could be the last best hope for serious negotiations with Iran to produce a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. . “The House must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rouhani even gets a chance.”

Deposed president alleged to have helped Palestinian Islamists murder Egyptian police during 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for conspiring with Hamas during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since he was forced from office and detained by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

After the announcement, Morsi was moved from a secret military facility to Cairo’s Tora prison, where his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is also being held.

The news heightened tensions on a day when supporters of Egypt’s two main factions formed rival mass protests across the country in what was billed as a showdown between people backing the army and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. By the evening, nine people had been killed, most in Alexandria, and at least 200 injured in clashes in five cities, according to the MENA state news agency.

Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The charges allege that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brothers were rescued from jail during the revolution with Hamas’s assistance, and then helped Hamas to attack Egyptian police facilities and murder policemen during the ousting of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals and that Hamas had no role in the uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 25 January revolution [the 2011 uprising] through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return to influence of Mubarak-era officials and institutions who were sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The police – a target of the 2011 uprising – have seen their popularity rise again following the anti-Morsi protests on 30 June, and they have been quick to capitalise. On Friday, police gave Egyptian flags to pro-army protesters in a show of unity.

The decision by the new government to focus first on allegations relating to events before Morsi’s presidency, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that it may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police – who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under Morsi.

Resurgent support for the police, who publicly backed Morsi’s removal, was apparent among pro-army protesters, even from the most unlikely sources.

“The interior ministry [who run the police] have been purified of the blood of the past,” said 66-year-old Magdy Iskandar Assad, whose son was killed by police officers during protests following Mubarak’s fall. “There’s a reconciliation now between the people and institutions like state security.”

Assad was one of hundreds of thousands demonstrating in support of the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of the Egyptian media has spent the past month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to go out to support Sisi, and thousands heeded the call – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the atmosphere was of a military pageant.

Many wore photographs of Sisi around their neck. Military helicopters flew overhead to loud cheers from the crowd. Smiling protesters had their pictures taken with the soldiers who were securing the entrances to the square, some of them sitting on large armoured personnel carriers.

“My message to General Sisi is: what you did on 30 June was greater than what Egypt did in the 1973 war [against Israel],” said Walid Hedra, 38, a one-time Islamist who grew disillusioned with Morsi after he used dictatorial powers to force through a controversial new constitution last November.

“The armed forces are reborn again thanks to Sisi, the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Assad, referring to Egypt’s much-loved dictator during the 50s and 60s. “Sisi is a courageous man who is working for the good of the country.”

Egypt’s pro-Sisi demonstrations also coincided with counter-demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood organised 35 marches across the capital, raising fears of serious factional fighting after nightfall. By the evening, 37 had already been injured in clashes in northern Cairo – but clashes were fiercest in Alexandria, where the health ministry reported at least 100 injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, had earlier stoked tensions by calling Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

Many marching in Morsi’s name were afraid of what Sisi’s campaign against terrorism might entail. “It doesn’t make sense for a defence minister to ask people to give him authority to fight terrorism,” said Abdallah Hatem, a 19-year-old student from Cairo. “So his speech was a pretext for something else – a pretext to fight peaceful protesters who want Morsi to come back.”

“None of us here are terrorists,” added Mohamed Mostafa, a street vendor from southern Egypt, struggling nearby under the weight of a Morsi banner. “You can see that for yourself.”

But not everyone on the streets accepted the binary choice of the army or the Brotherhood. A small group of Egyptians, calling themselves the Third Square, gathered in a square in west Cairo to object to the authoritarianism of both groups.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his tenure. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi’s supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June.

Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest outside a military compound in east Cairo. In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is considered an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. But the movement’s leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation in the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi. Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core and delusional demand – would also see them lose significant credibility among their supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam. “They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Asked whether he would accept anything less that Morsi’s reinstatement, 19-year-old Morsi-backer Abdallah Hatem said: “It’s impossible.”

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad

Death toll above three figures in Cairo as Muslim Brotherhood accuses security forces of shooting to kill

Egyptian security forces shot dead at least 100 supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi early on Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood said, deepening the turmoil which has convulsed Egypt for weeks.

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said the shooting started shortly before pre-dawn morning prayers on the fringes of a round-the-clock vigil being staged by backers of Morsi, who was toppled by the army more than three weeks ago.

“They are not shooting to wound, they are shooting to kill,” Haddad said, adding that the death toll might be much higher.

Al Jazeera’s Egypt television station reported that 120 had been killed and some 4,500 injured in the early morning violence near Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawia mosque.

Reporters at the scene said firing could still be heard hours after the troubles started.

“I have been trying to make the youth withdraw for five hours. I can’t. They are saying they have paid with their blood and they do not want to retreat,” said Saad el-Hosseini, a senior Brotherhood politician.

“It is a first attempt to clear Rabaa al-Adawia,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from state authorities on what had happened.

The clashes started after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Morsi supporters who tried to extend the sit-in in eastern Cairo.

Al Jazeera showed medics desperately trying to revive casualties arriving at a field hospital set up near the mosque.

El-Haddad said police started firing repeated rounds of tear-gas at protesters on a road close to the mosque sometime after 3am local time (2am BST). Shortly afterwards, live rounds started flying, hitting people at close range.

The bloodshed came the day after supporters and opponents of Morsi staged mass rival rallies across the country, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets and laying bare deep divisions within the Arab world’s most populous country.

Well over 200 people have died in violence since the overthrow of Morsi, most of them Brotherhood supporters.

William Hague responds to ‘delusional’ Assad interview with promise to step up aid package with promise of more to come

The UK might start arming Syrian rebels if the death toll and humanitarian crisis continue to worsen, making it necessary to do “something new to save lives”, William Hague said on Sunday.

The foreign secretary is due to make a statement to parliament this week detailing a new package of aid to the rebels, following a relaxation last week of the EU rules on what can be sent to Syria. It is expected to include body armour and civilian vehicles reinforced to provide protection against shrapnel. Hague said the new aid would be non-lethal, excluding weapons and ammunition, but he stressed that policy could change as the conflict continues.

“I don’t rule out anything for the future. If this is going to go on for months, or years, and more tens of thousands of people are going to die, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it is not something we can ignore,” the foreign secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“If ever we get into that situation [of supplying weapons to the opposition] the risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints. And it is one of the reasons we don’t do it now. But these things are a balance of risk. You can reach consensus eventually when humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives. That’s why I don’t rule it out in the future.”

In an interview with the Sunday Times, president Assad yesterday denounced Britain for its leading role in pushing for more help to the rebels, accusing the government of neocolonialism.

“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries,” the Syrian leader said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.”

He derided Britain’s stated aim of strengthening moderate rebel groups, arguing no such thing existed.

“The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria; we all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies. This is beyond hypocritical,” Assad said.

Hague responded by telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “This will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”

The comments by Assad dampened hopes of peace negotiations that had been raised in Moscow last week by his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, who said the regime was ready to talk with the opposition. Assad said talks could only take part with those elements of the opposition that were “loyal to Syria” and who “surrender their arms”. He appeared to exclude the main opposition group, the National Coalition, arguing “the Syrian people do not recognise them or take them seriously”.

Today in an attempt to strengthen its ties with rebels inside Syria, the head of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, visited areas under their control near the northern city of Aleppo, which has been the focus of intense fighting in recent months. Khatib has offered to open talks with the Damascus regime, without insisting on the opposition’s earlier precondition of Assad stepping down, but demanding the government release 160,000 political prisoners.

National Coalition officials emerged from a meeting of their western and Arab backers in Rome on Thursday confident the European arms embargo would begin to crumble in the next few months and that Washington would also drop its ban on arming the rebels. They said that in recent weeks they have been allowed by Turkey to smuggle in more sophisticated types of weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

The website of the French newspaper, Le Figaro, yesterday quoted a French military source in the Middle East as saying that US, British and French special forces were already training Syrian rebels in Jordan, at the King Abdallah Special Operation Training Centre north of Amman.

The New York Times last week also quoted senior US officials as saying that American soldiers were helping train Syrian rebels “at a base in the region” . In his Le Figaro blog, the journalist Georges Malbrunot cited a source as saying the training mission began “before the end of last year”.