Fury at army and police over Egypt soccer riot deaths

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Egyptian police have fired tear gas at thousands of demonstrators outside the Interior Ministry protesting the security forces' failure to prevent a riot that killed 74 people.

Anger has been building as the public and lawmakers blamed the country's military rulers for the bloodshed, the latest to signal rapidly deteriorating security in the country since Hosni Mubarak's fall nearly a year ago.

The protests started as a peaceful march by Egyptians angry over the police inaction from the headquarters of Al-Ahly, one of Egypt's most popular soccer clubs, to the area outside the ministry building near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of last year's popular uprising that ousted Mubarak.

Security forces guarding the area were separated from the more than 10,000 protesters by concrete blocs and barbed wire, but tensions rose as protesters advanced toward them, cursing and removing some of the barriers. They also raised their shoes in the air and hurled stones. Police responded with heavy tear gas, sending demonstrators running, with some passing out and falling to the ground.

Some tried to move big concrete blocs erected around the ministry since November, when clashes between the police and protesters then left more than 40 people dead.

In scenes reminiscent of those clashes, protesters set tires on fire, sending black smoke in the air. Motorcycle drivers ferried some of those wounded from the site as ambulances were unable to get through. Egyptian state TV said 100 people had passed out from the tear gas.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement the protesters had cut the barbed wire, and crossed over the concrete blocs to reach the roads leading to the headquarters. It urged the protesters "to listen to the sound of wisdom ... at these critical moments" to prevent the spread of chaos.

Wednesday's 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, but the violence went beyond the deep sports rivalry between the teams.

A network of rabid 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 Mubarak and now the military.

Many members of die-hard soccer fans who were among the protesters vowed to storm the ministry.

"Either they (police) will die or we will die," said Islam, a member of the Ultras, said. "We are willing to die for the blood of martyrs."

He declined to give his last name because of the volatility of the situation.

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, in an emergency parliamentary session, announced he has 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 MPs said the lapse was intentional, aimed at stoking the country's insecurity since the fall a year ago of former leader Hosni Mubarak.

Some accused the police of allowing the riot to happen out of vengeance against the ultras - die-hard soccer fans who are bitter enemies of the police and have been among the most aggressive protesters over the past year.

The ultras, backers of Al-Ahly club, were at the forefront of violent protests a year ago that led to the collapse of the police force, and in more recent months, they have clashed with soldiers during rallies demanding an end to military rule.

In an emergency session, 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 defence committee. "This is part of the scenario of fuelling chaos against Egypt."

Protests and a march on the Interior Ministry were planned against the police force over the violence. In the morning, dozens of angry protesters sealed off Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, while others blocked the street in front of the nearby state TV building in preparation for the rallies.

The riot at the stadium in Port Said erupted when fans of the local team, Al-Masry, stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly, one of Egypt's most popular clubs.

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.

Lines of riot police in the stadium largely did nothing to intervene, witnesses said. At one point, the stadium lights went out, plunging it into darkness. At the time, the TV sportscaster announcing the match said authorities shut them off to "calm the situation."

"We were surprised the police let them in that easy. The numbers were huge," said Ahmed Ghaffar, one of the visiting Al-Ahly fans at the stadium.

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.

"Layers of people" were "stuck over each other because there was no other exit," Ghaffar tweeted.

"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.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, 22, a survivor who visited a Cairo morgue where two of his dead friends were taken, said that after the lights went out, people were left "to kill each other."

He ran into the corridor. "We went down trying to get out and everyone was pushing. Under me was more than three people and I am being pushed. Everyone is pushing trying to breathe," he said.

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 meagre.

"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."

Health ministry official Hisham Sheha said the deaths were caused by stabs by sharp tools, brain haemorrhage and concussions.

TV footage showed Al-Ahly players rushing for their dressing room as fistfights broke out among the hundreds of fans swarming on to the field. Some men had to rescue a manager from the losing team as he was being beaten. Riot police stood by, appearing overwhelmed.

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.

Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood MP, said the military and police were complicit in the violence, accusing them of trying to show that emergency regulations giving security forces wide-ranging powers must be maintained.

"This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police," he said.

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-criticised 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 demanded the removal of the prosecutor general Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid to guarantee "transparent investigations."

The Ultras, meanwhile, accused the military council and former members of Mubarak's regime of retaliating against them for their role in the uprising last year against Mubarak and in anti-military protests since.

"They want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression," the Ultras of Al-Ahly group said in a statement. It vowed a "new war in defence of our revolution."

The ultras have long been bitter enemies of the police. Their anti-police songs, peppered with curses, have quickly become viral and an expression of the hatred many Egyptians feel toward security forces that were accused of much of the abuse that was widespread under Mubarak's regime.

AP

* Scores killed as Egyptian football fans riot

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