Egyptian protesters are holding huge rallies in Cairo and other cities as they step up their efforts to force President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Organisers say they hope one million will come on to the streets of the capital in what is expected to be the biggest demonstration yet.

The atmosphere has been festive, with protesters singing and chanting.

Protest leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, have called on Mr Mubarak to step down by Friday at the latest.

“They hope that this will end today or Friday at the latest, and they called the coming Friday ‘the Friday of departure’, but I hope that President Mubarak will take heed before then and leave the country after 30 years of rule and give the people a chance, and I don’t expect that he wants to see more blood,” Mr ElBaradei told al-Arabiya TV.

Festive atmosphere

BBC correspondents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square say the crowds there are already much bigger than on the previous seven days of protests.

Journalists at the scene estimated that hundreds of thousands of people – men, women and children from a cross-section of Egyptian society – have gathered, although in the absence of official estimates, there is no way of finding out the exact numbers.

Egypt’s powerful army has vowed it will not use force against the protesters.

Many carried placards and banners daubed with anti-Mubarak slogans. Earlier, crowds cheered as an effigy of the president was hung from a set of traffic lights in the square.

Meanwhile, new Vice-President Omar Suleiman said he would hold cross-party talks on constitutional reform.

Mr Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet on Monday to try to head off the protests, replacing the widely despised Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.

But analysts say the army’s statement has been a major blow for President Mubarak, and appears to have encouraged protesters, who are flocking to central Cairo in their thousands.

The feeling that change is coming in Egypt is getting stronger, says the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen in Cairo. Too much has happened too quickly to go back to the way things were before, he says.

The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, says 300 people may been killed across the country since the protests began a week ago. They followed an internet campaign and were partly inspired by the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia last month.

Egypt has since cut off the internet in the country and text messaging services have been disrupted.

Google announced late on Monday that it was operating a special service to allow people in Egypt to send Twitter messages by dialling a phone number and leaving a voicemail.

‘We’re not leaving’

In Egypt’s second biggest city, Alexandria, thousands of people have gathered to call for the president to step down.

Thousands more were out in the streets in Suez, and the Associated Press news agency reported protests in Mansoura, north of Cairo, and the southern cities of Assiut and Luxor.

With limited bus, train and internal flight services, access to the capital has been restricted.

Unnamed security officials were reported as saying all roads and public transportation to Cairo had been shut down.

Some protesters camped out in Tahrir Square on Monday night, saying they would stay there until Mr Mubarak’s 30-year rule ended.

One demonstrator, Tarek Shalabi, told the BBC that groups were camped out in tents or sleeping out in the square, and described the atmosphere as “overwhelming”.

“We’re here because we want to make a statement. We’re not going until Mubarak steps down,” he said.

He said a stage had been set up where people could go up and make speeches, read out poetry or sing or chant political slogans.

Meanwhile, crowds of pro-Mubarak demonstrators held counter-protests elsewhere in the capital, raising fears of possible confrontations between the different groups.

‘Legitimate’

On Monday, the Egyptian army said it respected the “legitimate rights of the people”.

In its statement, carried on Egyptian media, the military said: “To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people… have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people.”

Correspondents say the announcement is absolutely critical because it takes away a huge measure of uncertainty from the mind of any potential demonstrator.

A coalition of political opposition groups – incorporating the Muslim Brotherhood, political parties such as that led by Mr ElBaradei, and other prominent figures – has reportedly met, and told the Egyptian government that it will begin talks on its demands only after Mr Mubarak has stood down.

Meanwhile, the US state department has despatched a special envoy to Cairo, former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner.

Concerns have also grown about the economy, as global oil prices on Monday topped $100 (£62) a barrel amid fears over the ongoing unrest

Source: BBC

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