Gadaffi's soccer foes pay deadly penalty

Andrew Gumbel
Sunday 14 July 1996 23:02 BST

Increasing resentment against the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, has exploded into violence at a football stadium in Tripoli, where a derby between the capital's two main teams turned into a shoot-out between supporters and official government bodyguards.

Up to 50 people were yesterday reported to have been killed in one of the worst outbreaks of violence to hit Libya in years, as the crowd embarked on a shouting match for and against Mr Gadaffi which degenerated into bloodshed.

The crucial moment came in the closing moments of the game, as the referee was forced to adjudicate a questionable goal scored by Al-Ahli over their city rival, Al-Ittihad. The crowd clearly felt the goal should have been disallowed, but Al-Ahli's owner - Mr Gadaffi's son al-Saadi - was sitting in the stands and the referee eventually decided to let it stand.

Furious Al-Ittihad supporters immediately invaded the pitch chanting anti-government slogans, and al-Saadi's bodyguards opened fire in response, killing at least four people. Some supporters started firing back, but panic quickly gripped the 60,000-strong crowd, which stampeded towards the exits.

Once outside, the violence resumed. Cars and passers-by were attacked with stones, seemingly at random. Estimates by foreign diplomats and Libyan opposition leaders put the final death toll at between 20 and 50, with scores of others injured.

The game took place last Tuesday, and for several days the government succeeded in hushing up the incident. But by this weekend even the official media were giving a sanitised version over the airwaves, and yesterday was declared a national day of mourning. Restaurants and hotels were banned from holding large receptions, and state television transmitted all its programmes in black and white.

All league games have been suspended for 40 days, and the two Tripoli teams involved in the game have been disbanded, according to official sources.

The affair is likely to have badly shaken Colonel Gadaffi, since public opposition to his 27-year-old regime is almost unheard of. There have been growing challenges to his authority, notably from Islamic fundamentalists, but they have largely been confined to Libya's second city, Benghazi, in the east, and have rarely manifested themselves in Tripoli.

Libyan opposition groups have reported several violent incidents recently, including a prison riot last week in which eight political prisoners on hunger strike were shot dead.

On the Egyptian border, armed guards have been stopping and searching trucks coming into the country, apparently searching for weapons. Col Gadaffi has ordered that any known fundamentalist leaders should be shot on sight, and scores of suspected opponents of the regime have been forced out of business or arrested.

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