Clashes in Egypt as Protesters Blame Police for Soccer Deaths

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 7:35 pm (UTC-5)
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Egyptian security forces clashed late Thursday with thousands of protesters who flooded the capital, Cairo, enraged by the failure of the country's military rulers and police to prevent soccer violence that killed 74 people in the northern city of Port Said.

Black-clad riot police fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators attempting to reach the Interior Ministry. The march turned into a call for the ruling military council of generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to surrender power to a civilian government. The Health Ministry said 388 protesters were injured, most overcome by tear gas inhalation.

Medics said some of the injured suffered seizures and other severe respiratory symptoms. Ambulances and private motorbikes ferried wounded demonstrators through the crowds.

Earlier, lawmakers in Egypt's newly empowered parliament blamed police inaction they said had allowed home team fans at the soccer match in Port Said to attack spectators in visiting bleachers with knives, sticks and firecrackers. The lawmakers voted to conduct an investigation. Egypt has experienced a series of deadly incidents linked to poor security in the past year, leaving many worried about instability.

Egypt's military-appointed prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzuri, said the government fired the board of Egypt's soccer federation and suspended Port Said's governor and security chiefs in response to the disaster, one of the deadliest in the history of the sport.

The head of Egypt's military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, declared three days of national mourning and vowed to find the culprits. Police have arrested 47 suspects.

“God willing, if there is any person planning to destabilize Egypt, he will fail to achieve his goal. Everyone involved in this incident will be handed a fair sentence.”

Egypt's main stock index fell more than 2 percent on Thursday.

The head of world soccer's governing body, FIFA, sent a letter to Egypt's soccer federation demanding a full explanation of the disaster and calling it a “black day for football.” Sepp Blatter also said football is a force for good and authorities must not allow it to be abused “by those who mean evil.” Egypt's soccer league has been suspended indefinitely.

Western media quote survivors of the riot as describing how police negligence had facilitated Wednesday night's bloody events. Fans reported that security officers stood by as supporters of the winning home team, Al-Masry, attacked those of the top Cairo club, Al-Ahly, stabbing them and throwing them off bleachers. Panicked fans rushed for the exits but were crushed against locked gates.

A network of zealous Al-Ahly supporters known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them because they have been among the most aggressive of Egypt's revolutionaries. Ultras were at the forefront of the anti-government uprising – first against toppled leader Hosni Mubarak a year ago and now against the military that took his place in power.

Many young people carrying signature Ultras flags and shirts could be seen marching Thursday night in central Cairo.

In Port Said, VOA correspondent Elizabeth Arrott said the atmosphere was tense, with troops deployed to prevent further battles between rival fans. She said some protesters in the city blamed the disaster on negligence by the security forces, while others called for retaliation against the fans who instigated the violence.