PORT SAID, EGYPT – Seventy-four people were killed and at least 1,000 injured on Wednesday when Egyptian soccer fans staged a pitch invasion in the city of Port Said, in what a deputy minister called the biggest disaster in the nation’s soccer history.
Angry politicians decried a lack of security at the match between Port Said team al-Masry and Cairo’s Al Ahli, Egypt’s most successful club, and blamed the nation’s leaders for allowing – or even causing – the tragedy.
“Down with military rule,” thousands of Egyptians chanted at the main train station Cairo where they awaited the return of fans, quickly turning the latest upsurge in violence into a political demonstration against army rule.
“The people want the execution of the field marshal,” they shouted, turning on the ruler of the miltiary council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who tried to assuage anger by vowing to find the culprits in a phone call to a TV channel.
The pitch invasion provoked panic among the crowd as rival fans fought, with most of the deaths 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.
“I saw people holding machetes and knives. Some were hit with these weapons, other victims were flung from their seats, while the invasion happened,” Usama El Tafahni, a journalist in Port Said who attended the match, told Reuters.
Many of the Al Ahli fans involved were “ultras”, dedicated supporters of the team with years of experience confronting police at football matches and who played a leading role in hitting back at heavy-handed security forces during the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
The have been seen as at the vanguard of subsequent clashes with police and the army in violence that followed Mubarak’s ouster, and were also among those who protested outside the Israeli embassy and tore down walls that the army erected to protect the embassy.
Tantawi pledged that the army’s plan to hand over power to civilians would not be derailed.
“Egypt will be stable. We have a roadmap to transfer power to elected civilians. If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed,” he told Al Ahli’s sports channel during his phone-in.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said 47 people had been arrested following the unrest and state television quoted Tantawi as saying a fact-finding committee would investigate the violence.
Deputy Health Minister Hesham Sheiha told state television: “This is unfortunate and deeply saddening. It is the biggest disaster in Egypt’s soccer history.”
Some enraged Egyptian politicians accused officials still in their jobs after the fall of Mubarak of complicity in the tragedy, or at least of allowing a security vacuum in which violence has flourished since last year’s revolution.
“The events in Port Said were pre-planned and are a message from the remnants of the regime. There are those who want the bloodshed to continue,” said Essam el-Erian, a member of parliament of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party which came out on top in recent parliamentary election.
The violence flared after the match between al-Masry and Al Ahli, whose fans have a history of fierce rivalry. Witnesses said fighting began after Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said and one descended to the pitch carrying an iron bar at the end of the match, which al-Masry won 3-1.
Al-Masry fans reacted by pouring onto the pitch and attacking Ahli players before turning to the terraces to attack rival supporters.
Many fans died in a subsequent stampede, while some were flung off their seats onto the pitch and were killed by the fall. At the height of the disturbances, rioting fans fired flares straight into the stands.
Hospitals throughout the Suez Canal zone were put on a state of alert and dozens of ambulances rushed to Port Said from the Canal cities of Ismailia and Suez, said an official in the zone’s local ambulance service.
Tantawi ordered two helicopters be sent to Port Said to fly out some of the visiting Al Ahli soccer team and its fans, military sources said. The helicopters would transfer the injured to military hospitals, the sources said.
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric called the events a massacre that violated the words and teachings of Islam.
Another match in Cairo was halted by the referee after receiving news of the violence in Port Said, prompting fans to set parts of the stadium on fire, television footage showed.
‘THIS IS WAR’
Live television coverage showed fans running onto the field and chasing Al Ahli players. A small group of riot police formed a corridor to try to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were still able to kick and punch the players as they fled.
“This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances,” Al Ahli player Mohamed Abo Treika told his club’s television channel.
“I call for the premier league to be cancelled. This is horrible situation and today can never be forgotten.”
State television reported that Egypt’s football federation had indefinitely suspended premier league matches.
Sepp Blatter, president of the FIFA world soccer federation, expressed his shock at the tragedy. “This is a black day for football. Such a catastrophic situation is unimaginable and should not happen,” he said in a statement.
Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, accused officials and security forces of allowing the disaster, saying they still had ties to the government of Mubarak, who was overthrown a year ago.
“The security forces did this or allowed it to happen. The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions,” he screamed in a telephone call to live television.
“Where is the security? Where is the government?”
A number of policemen were among the dead, a medical source and witnesses said.
Thursday marks the first anniversary of clashes on Tahrir Square when Mubarak supporters on camelback charged pro-democracy demonstrators, and fought with the ultras.
Online activists saw a connection with the ultras.
“The police and army (did not move) a muscle to prevent the bloodshed,” activist Sohair Riad wrote on Facebook. “Their silence screams complicity. This is a collective assassination of a group that continues to support the revolution and struggles against military rule.”