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Opponents reject Morsi's calls for dialogue after deadly Cairo clashes

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Protesters clash with supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi with Molotov cocktails and stones outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Wednesday night.

Updated at 7 p.m. ET: CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday invited political groups and legal figures to meet for a national dialogue on solutions to Egypt's political crisis after clashes between his supporters and his foes left seven dead and hundreds wounded.

Morsi did not, however, rescind decrees granting him wide powers that his opponents had demanded, and his overtures on talks were immediately rejected by opposition leaders.

The main office of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was set ablaze late Thursday, the group's political party said, and another office used by the party was torched in a suburb south of the city, the state news agency reported.

In a nationally televised address to the nation, Morsi said he would bring together a number of groups at a Saturday meeting at the presidential palace. 

"Such painful events happened because of political differences that should be resolved through dialogue," the Islamist president said after two days of violence during protests. 

The discussions would center on a political roadmap after a referendum on a new constitution, Reuters reported. Morsi said they would discuss the fate of the upper house of parliament after the lower house was dissolved in June, the election law and other issues. He said plans for the referendum on December 15 were on track. 

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"I call for a full, productive dialogue with all figures and heads of parties, revolutionary youth and senior legal figures to meet this Saturday," Morsi said. He said he would harshly apply homeland security laws.

President Barack Obama called Morsi on Thursday to express his deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt, the White House said in a statement.

“The President emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the statement read. “Obama welcomed President Morsi's call for a dialogue with the opposition but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions.” The U.S. has also urged opposition leaders to join the dialogue without preconditions.

On the doorstep of Egypt's presidential palace, angry protesters accuse Mohamed Morsi of stealing power and imposing a constitution they consider illegal. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The speech seemed to do little to ease the crisis. The opposition has already said that it would not enter a dialogue with Morsi unless he first rescinds the decrees and shelves the constitution draft hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies. 

Some members of the umbrella National Salvation Front coalition of major opposition parties have already rejected the dialogue, as did leaders of the "April 6" movement, a group instrumental in starting the Jan. 25 revolution.

Ayman Nour of al Ghad Party, who was formerly jailed under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, said the referendum must be postponed and demanded that Morsi provide evidence that acts of thuggery against protesters were planned.

The Freedom and Justice Party said on its Facebook page that the headquarters in the Mukattam district had been attacked in "a terrorist aggression'' by thugs, Reuters reported.   The state news agency said the office used by the FJP was set ablaze in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Another office was broken into near the city centerr, it said. It was not clear who set the fires or perpetrated the break in and no groups had claimed responsibility for the acts.

Some among the thousands of opposition protesters gathered near his palace on Thursday raised their shoes in contempt as they listened to Morsi, The Associated Press reported. Others broke into the iconic Arab Spring chant of "the people want to topple the regime." 

Earlier Thursday, angry mobs battled each other with Molotov cocktails, rocks and sticks outside the presidential palace complex.

Egypt's Republican Guard, which witnesses said had deployed at least four tanks, later restored order outside the palace.

The street battles were the worst violence since Egypt's latest crisis erupted on Nov. 22, when Morsi assumed near absolute powers.

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The large scale and intensity of the fighting marked a milestone in Egypt's rapidly emerging schism, pitting the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamists in one camp, against liberals, leftists and Christians in the other.

It was the first time supporters of the rival camps have fought each other since last year's uprising that toppled authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

Officials said seven people had been killed and 350 wounded in the violence, for which each side blamed the other, Reuters reported. The Muslim Brotherhood said six of the dead were Morsi supporters.

The commander of the Republican Guard said deployment of tanks and troop carriers around the presidential palace was intended to separate the adversaries, not to repress them.

Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood stand near tanks on Thursday that had been deployed outside the Egypt's presidential palace in Cairo.

"The armed forces, and at the forefront of them the Republican Guard, will not be used as a tool to oppress the demonstrators," General Mohamed Zaki told the state news agency.

Hussein Abdel Ghani, spokesman of the opposition National Salvation Front, said more protests were planned, but not necessarily at the palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district.

"Our youth are leading us today and we decided to agree to whatever they want to do," he told Reuters.

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The fighting erupted late Wednesday afternoon when thousands of Morsi's Islamist supporters descended on an area near the presidential palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in.

The Islamists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, chased the protesters away from their base outside the palace's main gate and tore down their tents.

After a brief lull, hundreds of Morsi opponents arrived and began throwing firebombs at the president's backers, who responded with rocks.

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By dawn, the violence had calmed. But both sides appeared to be digging in for a long struggle, with the opposition vowing more protests later Thursday and rejecting any dialogue unless the charter is rescinded.

The violence spread to other parts of the country on Wednesday. Anti-Morsi protesters stormed and set ablaze the Muslim Brotherhood offices in Suez and Ismailia, east of Cairo, and there were clashes in the industrial city of Mahallah and the province of Menoufiyah in the Nile Delta north of the capital.

There were rival demonstrations outside the Brotherhood's headquarters in Alexandria. And security officials said senior Brotherhood official Sobhi Saleh was hospitalized after being severely beaten by Morsi opponents.

Morsi, for his part, seemed to be pressing relentlessly forward with plans for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum to pass the new charter.

NBC News' Charlene Gubash, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Violence breaks out in Cairo, Egypt, outside Mohammed Morsi's presidential palace. NBC's Jim Maceda has more on the clashes and a possible constitutional compromise by the Egyptian government.

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