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Army chief denies election bias

The head of Egypt's armed forces has rejected accusations that the military is throwing its weight behind a candidate in next month's presidential elections a day after thousands of people demonstrated against the ruling generals.

The statement from Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military council that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's ousting last year, came a day after tens of thousands of Egyptians packed Cairo's Tahrir Square to denounce military rule.

Protesters accused the generals of trying to manipulate the May presidential vote.

Speaking at a military training exercise, Mr Tantawi said the armed forces are focused at the moment on handing power to an elected civilian government, not on hanging on to power. He also insisted the military was not picking favourites in the presidential race.

"The armed forces stand at an equal distance from all the parties without taking sides at the expense of another party," Mr Tantawi was quoted as saying by the state news agency Mena.

He also said that the military was able to respond to insults with "violence from an iron fist", but that the military would not do so in order to keep Egypt safe.

The military has over the past year used deadly violence to disperse protests against its rule. The elections set to begin May 23 were intended to be a landmark in Egypt's transition: the first free choosing of a president after decades of authoritarian rule.

After the president is installed, the military is to hand over the power it took after Mr Mubarak's ousting by the end of June.

Mr Tantawi has insisted, however, that Egypt's new constitution be written before the presidential vote, raising fears that the deadline to hand over power may be pushed back.

The military, which has produced Egypt's last four presidents, is widely viewed as trying to avoid being subject to civilian oversight.

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