published Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Egyptians blame military for deadly soccer riot

  • photo
    An injured man is carried after arriving from Port Said at a train station in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. Witnesses say scores of Egyptian soccer fans were stabbed to death while others suffocated, trapped in a long narrow corridor trying to flee rival fans armed with knives, clubs and stones in the country's worst ever soccer violence. At least 74 people died and hundreds were injured after Wednesday's game in the seaside city of Port Said, when disgruntled fans of the home team, Al Masry, rushed the pitch, setting off clashes and a stampede as riot police largely failed to intervene. (AP Photo)

CAIRO — A narrow stadium exit turned into a death trap. Crowds of Egyptian soccer fans fleeing supporters of the opposing team armed with knives, clubs and stones rushed into the corridor, only to be crushed against a locked gate, their rivals attacking from behind, survivors and witnesses said.

The result was the world's worst soccer violence in 15 years, with 74 people crushed, suffocated or stabbed to death.

Many Egyptians, from the public to lawmakers, on Thursday blamed the police and the country's ruling military for failing to prevent the rioting the night before in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said.

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, in an emergency parliamentary session, announced he has dissolved the Egyptian Soccer Federation's board and referred its members for questioning by prosecutors about the violence. He also said the governor of Port Said province and the area's police chief have resigned.

Several lawmakers said the lapse was intentional, aimed at stoking the country's insecurity since the Feb. 11 fall of former leader Hosni Mubarak.

Some accused the police of allowing the riot to happen out of vengeance against the ultras — die-hard soccer fans who are bitter enemies of the police and have been among the most aggressive protesters over the past year.

The ultras, backers of Al-Ahly club, were at the forefront of violent protests a year ago that led to the collapse of the police force, and in more recent months, they have clashed with soldiers during rallies demanding an end to military rule.

In an emergency session, Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni, of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused security authorities of hesitating to act, putting "the revolution in danger."

"This is a complete crime," said Abbas Mekhimar, head of parliament's defense committee. "This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt."

Protests and a march on the Interior Ministry were planned Thursday against the police force over the violence. In the morning, dozens of angry protesters sealed off Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, while others blocked the street in front of the nearby state TV building in preparation for the rallies.

The riot at the stadium in Port Said erupted when fans of the local team, Al-Masry, stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly, one of Egypt's most popular clubs.

Al-Masry supporters, armed with knives, sticks and stones, chased Al-Ahly players and fans, who ran toward the exits and up the stands to escape, according to witnesses.

Lines of riot police in the stadium largely did nothing to intervene, witnesses said. At one point, the stadium lights went out, plunging it into darkness. At the time, the TV sportscaster announcing the match said authorities shut them off to "calm the situation."

"We were surprised the police let them in that easy. The numbers were huge," said Ahmed Ghaffar, one of the visiting Al-Ahly fans at the stadium.

As many Al-Ahly fans crowded into the corridor leading out of the stadium, they were trapped, with the doors at the other end locked.

"Layers of people" were "stuck over each other because there was no other exit," Ghaffar tweeted on Thursday. "We were between two choices, either death coming from behind us, or the closed doors."

He said Al-Masry fans beat Al-Ahly fans who fell on the floor.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, 22, a survivor who on Thursday was at a Cairo morgue where two of his dead friends were taken, said that after the lights went out, people were left "to kill each other."

He ran into the corridor. "We went down trying to get out and everyone was pushing. Under me was more than three people and I am being pushed. Everyone is pushing trying to breathe," he said.

Al-Masry fan, Mohammed Mosleh, who posted his account on Facebook, said he saw "thugs with weapons" on his side in the stadium where police presence was meager.

"This was unbelievable," he said. "We were supposed to be celebrating, not killing people. We defeated Al-Ahly, something I saw twice only in my lifetime. All the people were happy. Nobody expected this."

Health ministry official Hisham Sheha said the deaths were caused by stabs by sharp tools, brain hemorrhage and concussions. "All those carried to hospitals were already dead bodies," Sheha told stat TV.

TV footage showed Al-Ahly players rushing for their locker room as fistfights broke out among the hundreds of fans swarming on to the field. Some men had to rescue a manager from the losing team as he was being beaten. Riot police stood by, appearing overwhelmed.

The Interior Ministry said 74 people died, including one police officer, and 248 were injured, 14 of them police. A local health official initially said 1,000 people were injured and it was not clear how severely. Security forces arrested 47 people for involvement in the violence, the statement said.

Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood lawmaker, said the military and police were complicit in the violence, accusing them of trying to show that emergency regulations giving security forces wide-ranging powers must be maintained.

"This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police," he said.

A number of political parties called on the Egyptian parliament to pass no-confidence vote against the government of el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era politician appointed by the much-criticized ruling military council.

Osama Yassin, head of sports committee in parliament, said the parliament holds the interior minister, who is in charge of police, responsible for the violence. He demanded ouster of the prosecutor general Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid to guarantee "transparent investigations."

The Ultras, meanwhile, accused the military council and former members of Mubarak's regime of retaliating against them for their role in the uprising last year against Mubarak and in anti-military protests since.

"They want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression," the Ultras of Al-Ahly group said in a statement. It vowed a "new war in defense of our revolution."

The ultras have long been bitter enemies of the police. Their anti-police songs, peppered with curses, have quickly become viral and an expression of the hatred many Egyptians feel toward security forces that were accused of much of the abuse that was widespread under Mubarak's regime.

The stadium riot came on the one-year anniversary of one of the most violent days of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising. On Feb. 2 last year, in what became known as the "Battle of the Camel," Mubarak loyalists on camels and horses attacked protesters at Tahrir Square, leading to nearly two days of battles with rocks, firebombs and slabs of concrete.

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