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Strike, protests hit Egypt's Port Said for 3rd day

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MOSAAD EL-GOHARY | February 19, 2013 02:20 PM EST | AP

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PORT SAID, Egypt — A third day of protests and strikes brought the restive city of Port Said to a halt on Tuesday, as demonstrators demanded security officials be held accountable for the killings of over 40 residents in riots last month.

The strategic city at the mouth of the Suez Canal has been at the forefront of protests against President Mohammed Morsi, highlighting the government's difficulty in asserting authority as discontent widens beyond the capital, Cairo. Despite the protests, shipping through the canal, a key pillar of the economy, has not been disrupted.

In Port Said, thousands marched in support of a general strike called by soccer fans and students. Some carried banners bearing the names of their companies. Others held aloft pictures of those killed in the violence. Most chanted against the president.

"This strike and protest will not end until our demands are met," said Amira el-Alfi, a 33-year old secretary who said factory managers had sent workers home early to join the march.

"We want retribution starting from the President to the interior minister to the snipers who killed those people," she said, referring to claims by residents that security forces firing from rooftops were responsible for many of the deaths in last month's unrest.

Last month, residents rose up in fury over death sentences issued against locals over a deadly soccer riot a year ago. Most of the deaths in the crisis came when security forces reportedly opened fire on protesters, some of whom attacked police facilities, and at funerals the following day.

Morsi responded with a heavy hand, declaring a state of emergency and 30-day curfew in Port Said and two other Suez Canal provinces following the violence. The state of emergency is still in effect, although residents have ignored the curfew. Security forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles were beefed up along the canal at the weekend.

In an attempt to diffuse the tension, parliament has discussed a long-held demand of Port Said residents to re-activate a free trade zone. And the local governor said authorities in Cairo have promised to send an investigation team to look into the violence.

Morsi said in a statement Tuesday that he will dedicate some $59 million dollars of Suez Canal revenues to Port Said and two other provinces along the waterway for development and job creation efforts.

Rachid Awad, a member of the interim parliament and resident of Port Said, told The Associated Press that Morsi's overtures do not satisfy residents because they fail to recognize those killed in protests and clashes during assaults on government offices last month as "martyrs." He said Port Said is also demanding that the main prison be moved from the center of town to the outskirts and for revenues from vast nearby natural gas operations to be partially allocated to the city.

On the streets too, protesters were unimpressed. Many consider the central government to have neglected the city for years. Some are calling for Morsi to step down. Others seek some kind of independence from Cairo, a goal summed up in the now common local protest slogan: "The people want the Republic of Port Said."

Elsewhere, discontent over Egypt's worsening economy has been hardening.

Diesel fuel shortages in many parts of the country have fueled outrage, particularly in Egypt's south, where lack of security has also hampered deliveries.

In the southern province of Assiut, private minibus drivers who operate local transportation lines have protested a lack of diesel for the past few days, waiting in a parking lot for hours and threatening to block railroads if diesel is not made available.

Lines outside fuel stations nearby and in other southern provinces have stretched for kilometers, as drivers queue to take advantage of available fuel before it runs out.

Sayed Shabib, a minibus driver in Assiut, said he waited for six hours overnight to fill up his tank. "The line stretched for two kilometers (1.24 miles)," he said, adding that jerry cans full of diesel were being sold on the black market for double the official price.

Also on Tuesday, an investigative judge referred Ahmed Shafiq, former presidential candidate and Egypt's last prime minister before Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in 2011, to trial. Shafiq was investigated for corruption and abuse of public funds. A date for the trial has not been set.

Shafiq ran against Morsi, and came in a close second. He left the country after the election results were announced.

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Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Mamdouh Thabet in Assiut, Egypt contributed to this report.