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Egypt Soccer Riot: Army, Police Blamed For Deadly Violence

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EGYPT SOCCER RIOT
Egyptian fans rush into the field following Al-Ahly club soccer match against Al-Masry club at the soccer stadium in Port Said, Egypt Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. (AP Photo) | AP

By MAGGIE MICHAEL -- The Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) - Egyptians ranging from soccer fans to lawmakers blamed the country's military rulers for a bloody post-match riot Thursday as anger mounted over the failure of police to stop the violence when a narrow stadium exit turned into a death trap in a seaside city north of the capital.

A network of soccer fans known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them because they have been at the forefront of protests over the past year, first against former leader Hosni Mubarak and now the military.

Thousands of protesters converged on Cairo's Tahrir Square - the epicenter of the uprising that ousted Mubarak last year - carrying the red flag of the city's Al-Ahly soccer club and the national banner. They then marched to the nearby Interior Ministry to protest the police inaction and call for retribution for the 74 people who died in the world's worst soccer violence in 15 years.

The protesters raised flags of Al-Ahly and Zamalek, another top team with its own Ultras group, and Egyptian flags. Some held black banners reading: "Mourning."

Survivors and witnesses described people falling from the bleachers and other scenes of chaos after as fans from the local Al-Masry team in Port Said chased supporters of the visiting Al-Ahly club with knives, clubs and stones. Hundreds fled into the exit corridor, only to be crushed against a locked gate, their rivals attacking from behind.

"The lights went off. The doors of the corridor were locked and sealed with a chain," said Sayyed Hassan, 22, who suffered a broken leg. He sat on the pavement with other mourners outside the morgue in Cairo, where many of the dead were taken.

"We weren't able to get out. I don't remember anything else," he said, adding that he had lost his 25-year-old friend in the stampede.

The riot at the stadium in Port Said erupted when Al-Masry fans stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly, one of Egypt's most popular clubs. Some Al-Ahly fans said they had hung banners making fun of Al-Masry supporters in Port Said before the game, apparently provoking the local fans to riot despite their victory.

Ultras who support Cairo's Al-Ahly and Zamalek clubs have long been bitter enemies of the police who wielded wide-ranging powers under Mubarak-era emergency law. The fans' anti-police songs, peppered with curses, usually go viral on the Internet, an expression of the hatred many Egyptians feel toward security forces.

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

The police force, which has been at the heart of the Egyptian grievances leading to the uprising, has remained a source of tension after Mubarak's ouster. The police have been accused of continuing to use heavy-handed tactics and resisting reform. But they also found themselves at times unable to manage crowds, fearing they would be vilified.

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. Ultras, along with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were key in defending the square from the attackers.

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, in an emergency parliamentary session, announced he had 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 Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11.

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."

More details about what happened after Wednesday's match emerged as mourners gathered outside the morgue in Cairo and the headquarters for the Al-Ahly club.

Witnesses said 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 while lines of riot police in the stadium largely did nothing to intervene. 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.

At one point, the stadium lights went out, plunging it into darkness. The TV sportscaster announcing the match said authorities shut them off to "calm the situation."

"Layers of people" were "stuck over each other because there was no other exit," Al-Ahly fan Ahmed 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.

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."

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.

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 state TV.

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 also demanded ouster of Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid.

The U.S. and Britain expressed condolences.

"I urge the Egyptian authorities to set up a transparent inquiry to uncover the causes of the tragedy and hold those responsible to account," Britain's Middle East minister Alistair Burt said.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.

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