CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Egyptian journalists and demonstrators angrily protested against the interior minister Wednesday, demanding he be fired over allegations he permitted sexual assaults on female journalists and protesters during last week’s referendum vote.

The women were beaten, groped and sometimes stripped of their clothes while protesting or covering the May 25 referendum that approved a constitutional amendment allowing for multi-candidate presidential elections, witnesses said.

The approximately 1,000 protesters carried posters of Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, with an X across his face and the words: “Make him resign.” The also carried black banners reading “Fire the minister of interior” and “Put these criminals on trial and punish them.”

The Interior Ministry would not comment on the protest when contacted by The Associated Press. But a government official said Egypt’s general prosecutor had opened an investigation into the alleged assaults and had begun questioning victims and eyewitnesses.

During the referendum, protesters were set upon by gangs of men chanting slogans in support of President Hosni Mubarak. The beatings took place in the presence of plainclothes security men, uniformed police and officials of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Eyewitnesses, including an Associated Press reporter, saw plainclothes state security investigators beat, grope and verbally harass female demonstrators.

Twenty-two Egyptian human rights organizations issued a joint statement expressing solidarity with the journalists, who like the other demonstrators were mostly dressed in black at Wednesday’s protest.

President Bush denounced the beatings, saying, “the idea of people expressing themselves in opposition to the government and then getting beaten is not our view of how a democracy ought to work.”

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