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Egypt Football Tragedy

Published: 03/02/2012 01:18:18 AM GMT
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CAIRO - At least 74 people were killed and hundreds injured in riots at a football game in Egypt, the deadliest incident since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak. The rush caused a stampede,” 23-year-old Ossama El-Zayat, (more)

CAIRO - At least 74 people were killed and hundreds injured in riots at a football game in Egypt, the deadliest incident since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak.

"The rush caused a stampede,” 23-year-old Ossama El-Zayat, who witnessed the match, told Reuters on Wednesday, February 1.

“People were pushing each other against the metal door and stepping on each other.”

The tragedy occurred when football fans invaded the pitch in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, after local team al-Masry beat visitors from Cairo, Al Ahli, Egypt's most successful club.

"We saw riot police firing shots in the air, and then everyone got scared and kept pushing against the locked door,”  said El-Zayat.

“We didn't know whether police were firing live rounds or not. People were crying and dying.”

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.

At least 1,000 were injured in the violence.

Television footage showed fans running onto the field and chasing Al-Ahli players.

A small group of riot police formed a corridor to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were still able to kick and punch players as they fled.

Television footage also showed some security officers in the stadium showing no sign of trying to stop the pitch invasion.

One officer was filmed as people poured onto the field, talking on a mobile phone.

"The security forces did this or allowed it to happen,” Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, screamed in a telephone call to live television.

“The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions."

Hospitals in the Suez Canal zone were put on alert and dozens of ambulances were sent from the cities of Ismailia and Suez.

The two soccer teams, al-Masry and Al-Ahli, 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.

Blaming Junta

Egyptians turned their fury to the ruling military council over the tragedy.

"The military council wants to prove that the country is heading towards chaos and destruction,” said Mahmoud el-Naggar, 30, a laboratory technician and member of the Coalition of the Revolutionary Youth in Port Said.

“They are Mubarak's men. They are applying his strategy when he said 'choose me or choose chaos'."

Thousands of Egyptians gathered at the main Cairo train station where they met injured fans returning from Port Said.

"Down with military rule," chanted the angry protestors.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state television building and marches across the capital were planned.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, who heads the ruling military council, took an unusual step of speaking by telephone to a television channel, the sport broadcaster 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,  however, 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.

As with past flare-ups, it quickly turned political. Parliament was set to hold an emergency session later on Thursday to discuss the violence.

"The people want the execution of the field marshal," fans chanted at the station.

"We will secure their rights, or die like them," they said as covered bodies were unloaded from the trains.

Some saw the violence as orchestrated to target the "Ultras," Al-Ahli's dedicated fans whose experience confronting police at soccer matches was turned with devastating effect against Mubarak's heavy-handed security forces in the uprising.

They played a significant role in defending Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising against Mubarak, when men on camels and horses charged protesters last year. Thursday is the anniversary of the notorious February 2 camel charge.

"All that happened is not for the sake of a game. It's political,” said Abdullah el-Said, a 43-year-old driver in Port Said.

“It was orchestrated by the military council to target the Ultras," he said.

"The military council wanted to crush the ultras because they sided with protesters ever since the revolution began."

Yet many Egyptians still see the army as the only guarantor of security.

When one activist in group outside a hospital accused the army of sowing chaos, a man chimed in blaming the youths: "Security has to return to the streets. Enough with all those protests that caused this security vacuum," he yelled.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party won the biggest bloc in parliament, blamed an "invisible" hand for causing the violence and said the authorities were negligent."We fear that some officers are punishing the people for their revolution and for depriving them of their ability to act as tyrants and restricting their privileges," it said.

Reproduced with permission from