CAIRO - Egypt's military threw its weight Friday behind President Hosni Mubarak's plan to stay in office through September elections while protesters fanned out to the presidential palace in Cairo and other key symbols of the authoritarian regime in a new push to force the leader to step down immediately.
Meanwhile, Mubarak's whereabouts were unknown. Widespread reports indicate that he has left Cairo (more below). Al Arabiya retracted an earlier report that the president had left the country.
The statement by the Armed Forces Supreme Council -- its second in two days -- was a blow to many protesters who had called on the military to take action to push out Mubarak after his latest refusal to step down.
But soldiers also took no action to stop demonstrators from massing outside the palace and the headquarters of state television, indicating they were trying to avoid another outbreak of violence.
Anti-government protesters said they were more determined than ever as the uprising entered its 18th day.
"We expected the army's decision, we always knew that it was behind Mubarak. But we know it's not going to harm us," Safi Massoud said as she joined thousands of people packed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square. "We wont leave until we choose a transition president. We don't want Mubarak, we don't want Suleiman."
The military statement endorsed Mubarak's plan to transfer some powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman and promised free and fair presidential elections later this year.
It also promised that the hated emergency laws, in force since Egypt's authoritarian ruler came to office in 1981, would be lifted and gave a somewhat more specific timeframe than Mubarak had offered in his Thursday night speech.
The military implied they would be lifted when protests end, saying it could happen "when the current security situation permits."
It also called for public services to resume and urged "the return of normal life in order to safeguard the achievements of our glorious people."
Undaunted, thousands packed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square, which has been the center of the uprising since it began on Jan. 25.
A few hundred protesters assembled outside the gate of Mubarak's Oruba Palace. The palace was protected by four tanks and rolls of barbed wire, but soldiers were doing nothing to stop demonstrators from joining the rally and chanting anti-Mubarak slogans.
Others massed outside the Cabinet, parliament and the state television headquarters several blocks away from Tahrir Square, the center of the mass rallies that began on Jan. 25.
Hundreds of demonstrators formed a human barricade around the building that houses state TV and radio, checking IDs and turning away those who work there. Tanks and barbed wire surrounded the building overlooking the Nile, but troops did not keep protesters away.
Hopes that Mubarak would resign had been raised Thursday when a council of the military's top generals announced it had stepped in to secure the country, and a senior commander told protesters in Tahrir Square that all their demands would soon be met.
Instead, several hundred thousand people watched in disbelief and anger as Mubarak refused to step down.
Mubarak called the protesters' demands legitimate and promised that September presidential elections -- in which he says he will not run -- will be "free and fair" with supervision to ensure transparency.
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