Italian football fans attack police after fatal shooting

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The Independent Online

Rome's Olympic stadium, home to Lazio and Roma football clubs, looked like a war zone last night as fans punished police for the shot that took the life of one of their own 12 hours before.

A car, a police bus and rubbish bins were set alight, stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers rained down on the police, "tens" of whom were said to have been hurt. Hundreds of enraged fans tried to break into a police barracks and laid siege to the Italian Olympic Organisation's headquarters.

When police managed to disperse them, closing down the entire area around the Olympic Stadium, they moved in packs into the smart suburbs north of the stadium, torching rubbish bins and another car .

It was the chaotic and frightening conclusion of a day that began with an absurd death. Gabriele Sandri, 28, an up-and-coming DJ in the capital and a passionate fan of Lazio, was one of five fans who pulled into the motorway service station of Badia al Pino north of Rome on their way to watch their side challenge Inter, the Milan team that is two points ahead at the top of Italy's Serie A. As ill chance would have it, another car crammed with Juventus fans – the Turin team has fans all over the country – pulled in at the same moment. Words were exchanged, more was perhaps threatened – but why a highway patrol officer at the far side of the motorway should have pulled out his pistol and fired at the fans remains a mystery.

Gabriele Sandri received a bullet in the back of the neck, and by the time his companions had reached medical help he was dead. It was the start of a nightmarish day. Police have clamped down successfully on fan violence this season, following riots that took the life of a policeman in the city off Catania in February; stadium violence is said to be down by 80 per cent. But the relationship between fans and police remains tense and fragile.

Yesterday it crumbled into open warfare. After the shooting, the police did what they could to limit the damage. Within hours chief constable Vincenzo Giacobbe said: "The shooting of Gabriele Sandri was a tragic mistake." Explaining – without really explaining – the circumstances, he went on: "I express my profound sadness and sincere condolences to the family of the victim."

Police later said that it was not 100 per cent certain that the fatal bullet had been fired by the police officer. Forensic tests were under way to establishe the truth. But the apology failed to deflect the fans' anger.

The killing of a policeman called Filippo Raciti outside Catania's ground last February brought a dramatic reaction from the state, with games at all levels from Serie A down to the little leagues called off as a sign of respect. Soon after Mr Sandri's death, the football authority announced that yesterday's Lazio-Inter match had been postponed to a later date – but (it was reasonably supposed) more from fear of crowd violence than out of respect for the dead fan. And the rest of the day's calendar remained unchanged.

Fans took the decision as a gross demonstration of inequality. The 10-minute delay to the start of all games, and the fact that players and referees ran on to the pitch wearing black armbands on their sleeves as a token of grief, did nothing to apease them. Violence erupted before the Atalanta/AC Milan game in Bergamo, east of Milan: fans threw stones at police outside the ground, while inside a mass of "ultras", as the fanatical element among Italian supporters is called, charged a plate glass barrier separating the two teams' fans, cracking it in two places. Riot police fired tear gas to bring the violence under control, but the referee called off the match after just seven minutes, acting on information that more violence was brewing.

In Milan, hundreds of Lazio and Inter fans - who traditionally have had a good relationship - protested outside a police station, with some throwing stones. Outside the San Siro stadium, television journalists were attacked by marauding fans, with one being admitted to hospital after being kicked and beaten by hooligans. Up and down the country matches were married by scenes of anger and disruption not witnessed all season. "All deaths are not equal" read one banner carried by fans in Milan.

Another banner paraded in Milan goaded the police, declaring "We want another Raciti" – referring to the dead Sicilian policeman. As this "day to forget" (as one commentator termed it) proceeded, it dawned on the football world that the problems identified with such soul-searching in February were still around.