A title-deciding football match in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s top league has ended in tragedy after a crowd stampede killed at least 15 spectators and left dozens more injured.
The championship play-off match between AS Vita and TP Mazembe had to be abandoned in the 93rd minute after police fired tear gas into the stands.
In the ensuing chaos a stadium wall collapsed and a gate was broken down as fans, blinded by the gas, tried to escape.
According to reports from a local radio station, the match was due to be televised until a van belonging to the Congolese national TV station TRNC was pelted with stones, and similarly unruly scenes were reported from within the ground.
Emmanuel Akweti, a local minister for the area in the country’s capital Kinshasa, said that four police officers were being “harassed” by supporters. “When they fired tear gas, the stampede began, causing the deaths,” he said.
Government statements put the death toll at 15, all of suffocation, and said 24 were injured – but an unnamed police source was quoted as saying at least 18 had died.
Images from the stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 30,000, posted on the TP Mazembe Facebook page appeared to show extreme overcrowding, with spectators climbing up camera rigging stands and flags.
The club, which was playing away, said on its website that it had been winning the game 1-0 when it was abandoned late on and celebrated winning the championship.
It said that the game had been interrupted around the 75th minute due to fans “stoning” players and officials, and that the final disturbance occurred as Mazembe prepared to take a corner. It reportedly took over half an hour to get the players, staff and officials off the pitch safely.
The incident, at the highest level of Congolese football, comes in the backdrop of a number of recent deadly stampedes at public events.
Last month at least 21 people were killed when what was believed to be a power cut caused a stampede at a crowded music festival. Officials at the time blamed the incident on “a rush due to the enthusiasm of the audience”.