Reuters International

Journalists protest against restriction on the press and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Staff

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(Reuters) - Thousands of Egyptian journalists called on Wednesday for the presidency to dismiss the interior minister and apologise for a police raid on the press syndicate and arrest of two opposition reporters, witnesses said.

Defying a heavy police presence outside their union, around 3,000 journalists attended an emergency meeting to protest against the arrest on Sunday of Mahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr who work for the opposition website Bawabet Yanayer.

The arrests came as authorities try to quell rising dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Hundreds of officers were deployed in central Cairo after protests last month against his decision to hand two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of demonstrators called on April 15 for "the downfall of the regime", a slogan from the 2011 Arab uprisings. Police dispersed smaller protests two weeks later.

Union officials said the police action at the syndicate was the first raid on the organisation in its 75-year history.

"We demand the presidency deliver a clear apology to journalists over the crime of raiding the syndicate," said syndicate official Karem Mahmoud, reading out the meeting's decisions.

"We demand the sacking of the interior minister as he is the main (person) responsible for the crisis," he said.

A spokesman for the presidency was not available for comment when Reuters called his mobile phone. Sakka and Badr, who are in jail, could not be reached for comment and Reuters could not determine whether they had lawyers.

A spokesman for the interior ministry could not immediately reached for response to Wednesday's demonstration.

Chanting "journalism is not a crime," the reporters voted to call on newspapers to print blank front pages and stop using Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar's name.

They also decided to hold a meeting next week to discuss organising a strike if their demands were not met, union officials said.

On Monday, the public prosecutor said Sakka and Badr were being investigated for "spreading news based on lies" and possession of firearms among other accusations. The interior ministry has denied its officers had stormed the union building but confirmed it had arrested the two inside the building.

The prosecutor's office issued a gag order on Tuesday on the case of the two journalists and the circumstances of their arrest. Syndicate officials said on Wednesday they would challenge it in court.

Dozens of pro-government demonstrators gathered outside the syndicate in downtown Cairo chanting calling for Sisi to "slaughter" the journalists as they entered and exited the building, according to a Reuters eyewitness.

The journalists' protests come at a time the former general also faces criticism because of the struggling economy and many question whether he continues to enjoy the broad public support that allowed him to round up thousands of opponents after he seized power in 2013.

(Editing by Dominic Evans)

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