Reuters International

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian police raided the press syndicate in Cairo late on Sunday and arrested two journalists critical of the government, a syndicate official and reporters said in what the labour union called an unprecedented crackdown on the media.

Labour union officials said this was the first time that police had raided its building -- a traditional spot in downtown Cairo for staging protests -- as authorities seek to quell rising dissent against President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

The interior ministry denied officers had stormed the press labour union building but confirmed it had arrested journalists Mahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr who work for the opposition website Bawabet Yanayer inside the syndicate.

Hundreds of officers have been deployed in central Cairo since protests erupted on April 15 against Sisi's decision to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia, with thousands calling for the government to fall, a slogan from the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Police dispersed smaller protests two weeks later.

The protests signal that the former general, who is also under fire because of the struggling economy, no longer enjoys the broad public support that allowed him to round up thousands of opponents after he seized power in 2013.

On Sunday, journalists held a sit-in inside the union when officers arrested the two reporters, syndicate officials said.

"The press syndicate calls for the resignation of the interior minister and an open sit-in," the union said in a statement.

Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the syndicate board, said over 40 policemen raided the building but the interior ministry said its force consisted of only eight officers.

"The ministry affirms that it did not raid the syndicate or use any kind of force in arresting the two journalists who handed themselves in as soon as they were told there was an arrest warrant," the interior ministry said in a statement.

A security guard was wounded in the eye when police raided the union, Kamel said.

CRITICISM

The state prosecutor said it had ordered the arrest of the two reporters as they were being investigated for "spreading news based on lies" and possessing fire arms and Molotov cocktails, state news agency MENA said.

"This is unprecedented, no president or prime minister or interior minister has ever dared to do something like this," Kamel said. Under the law only a prosecutor is allowed to search the union in the presence of its chairman or deputy, he added.

Dozens of journalists later held a new sit-in at the syndicate to protest against the arrest but police closed off streets to the building on Monday.

Sisi faces criticism for putting the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi waters though there are no signs that his rule is under threat.

However, even local media, which once suggested he could do no wrong, have been saying the government has mishandled a series of crises, from a probe into the killing of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, 28, in Cairo, to a bomb that brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula last October.

Torture marks on Regeni's body prompted rights groups to conclude he died at the hands of security forces, which Egypt denies. That revived complaints of police brutality, one of the issues that led Egyptians to challenge the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak toppled in 2011.

(Reporting by Cairo newsroom; Editing by Andrew Hay and Richard Balmforth)

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