Fri, Feb 03, 2012 - Page 20 News List

Egypt mourns deaths of soccer fans

BLAME GAME:While at least 74 people died and 1,000 were injured in soccer violence on Wednesday, angry fans are accusing the military of stoking lawlessness

Reuters, PORT SAID, EGYPT

Egyptians, incensed by the deaths of 74 people in clashes at a soccer stadium, staged protests yesterday as fans and politicians accused the ruling generals of failing to prevent the deadliest incident since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

Young men blocked roads near the state TV building and the capital’s landmark Tahrir Square, while a crowd gathered at Cairo’s main railway station hoping to see relatives returning from the game in Port Said.

As covered bodies from Egypt’s worst soccer disaster were unloaded from trains, thousands chanted: “Down with military rule.”

“Where is my son?” screamed Fatma Kamal, whose frantic phone calls seeking news of her 18-year-old had gone unanswered. “To hell with the football match. Give me back my boy!”

At least 1,000 people were injured in the violence on Wednesday evening, when soccer fans invaded the pitch in the Mediterranean city after local team al-Masry beat their visitors, Cairo’s Al Ahli, Egypt’s most successful club.

Hundreds of al-Masry supporters surged across the pitch to the visitors’ end and panicked Al Ahli fans dashed for the exit. However, the steel doors were bolted shut and dozens were crushed to death in the stampede, witnesses said.

Angry politicians denounced a thin security presence, given the tense buildup to the match, and accused Egypt’s military leaders of allowing, or even causing, the fighting.

Egypt’s parliament was holding an emergency session to discuss the violence. The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the assembly, said an “invisible” hand was behind the tragedy.

The Egyptian Ministry of the Interior blamed the violence on a section of the crowd, which it said had deliberately set out to cause “anarchy, a riot and a stampede.”

Hundreds gathered near the stadium in Port Said yesterday, chanting: “Port Said people are innocent. This is a conspiracy.”

Activists called a march at 4pm local time from Al Ahli’s club ground in central Cairo to the Ministry of the Interior to protest at what one minister said was Egypt’s worst soccer disaster.

“The military council wants to prove that the country is heading toward chaos and destruction. They are Mubarak’s men. They are applying his strategy when he said: ‘Choose me or choose chaos,’” said Mahmoud el-Naggar, 30, a laboratory technician and member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Port Said.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, who heads the ruling military council, took the unusual step of speaking by telephone to a TV channel owned by Al Ahli, vowing to track down the culprits. The army announced three days of national mourning.

“I deeply regret what happened at the football match in Port Said. I offer my condolences to the victims’ families,” Tantawi said in comments broadcast on state television.

It did little to assuage the anger of fans, who, like many Egyptians, are furious that Egypt is still plagued by lawlessness and frequent bouts of deadly violence almost a year after Mubarak was driven out and replaced by an army council.

The post-match pitch invasion provoked panic among the crowd as rival fans fought. Most of the deaths were among people who were trampled in the crush of the panicking crowd, or who fell or were thrown from terraces, witnesses and health workers said.

TV footage showed some security officers in the stadium showing no sign of trying to stop the pitch invasion. One officer was filmed talking on a mobile phone as people poured onto the field.

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