Egypt's military rulers apologised on Thursday for the deaths of demonstrators at the hands of police, while insisting elections will go ahead next week as planned.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) presents its regrets and deep apologies for the deaths of martyrs from among Egypt's loyal sons during the recent events in Tahrir Square," it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
There were still large crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Thursday, scene of days of deadly clashes between security forces and protesters demanding an immediate end of military rule, but the mood was calm after a truce negotiated by Muslim clerics.
"An agreement has been reached between security forces and protesters to halt confrontations between the two sides," Egypt's Cabinet said in a statement on Facebook.
At least 38 protesters have been killed since Saturday -- when the clashes first erupted -- and more than 2,000 injured, prompting expressions of concern from Western governments and a UN call for an independent inquiry into the "excessive use of force."
The demonstrators have been demanding the military leadership step down immediately and allow a return to civilian rule.
But the military council said on Thursday that doing so would amount to a "betrayal" of the people.
"The people have entrusted us with a mission and if we abandon it now, it would be a betrayal of the people," senior SCAF member General Mukthar al-Mulla told a news conference.
"The armed forces do not want to stay in power. We want to put the wishes of the people above all else," he said, adding that since the start of the transitional period it had been the army's "first objective" to restore security on the Egyptian streets.
"We will not delay the elections," said another senior SCAF member, Major General Mamduh Shahine. "This is the final word. They will be conducted according to the original dates."
Egyptians are set to vote on Monday in the first legislative elections since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, but the violence has cast a dark shadow over the country's first step to democratic rule.
An Egyptian court meanwhile decided to release three Americans arrested during protests in the square, pending an investigation, according to the official MENA news agency.
And Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy who was arrested overnight after joining the protests for democratic change said on Twitter that she had been released, but was subjected to hours of sexual assault by police during her detention.
Standard and Poor's ratings agency said on Thursday that it had cut its long-term rating on Egypt, by one notch to 'B+', given the country's deteriorating political and economic outlook.
"The downgrade reflects our opinion that Egypt's weak political and economic profile... has deteriorated further" following the clashes in recent days, S&P said.
The army's apology came after a speech by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's long time defence minister now in charge of the country, on Tuesday which was aimed at appeasing protesters in the square but was heavily criticised for not making mention of the deaths at the hands of police.
The SCAF vowed to investigate and prosecute all those behind the deaths, and to offer assistance to the families of the dead and injured.
The deaths prompted an unusually strongly worded statement from Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, calling on police not to shoot at demonstrators.
Grand imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb said that any dialogue "stained with blood is doomed and its fruit will be bitter."
Al-Azhar "calls on the police leadership to immediately issue orders not to point their weapons at demonstrators... no matter what the reasons," Tayyeb said in a message aired on state television.
It calls "on the armed forces to throw all their weight behind preventing confrontations between one people," he added.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the images coming out of Egypt "deeply shocking," and urged the authorities to end their "clearly excessive use of force" against protesters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed deep concern at the "unacceptable violence and loss of life" in and around Tahrir.
Analysts said that while the demonstrators in Tahrir might not represent the majority of the Egyptian population, their influence was unquestionable.
"We are seeing middle class youth being killed, and that moves big segments in the cities and provinces," said Nabil Abdel Fatah of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Brotherhood shuns protests
Cairo: Favourites to win lions’ share of seats in Egypt’s upcoming elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is keeping away from widespread protests rocking the country over demands that the military cede power.
Not only is the party distancing itself from the protests at Tahrir Square, it’s leaders have offered to participate in talks with the army to chart out the road to democracy. pti