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Soccer clashes kill at least 73 people in Egypt

By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times –

CAIRO — An Egyptian soccer match between two longtime rivals turned bloody when hooligans supporting the winning team stormed the field, attacking the opposing players and fans in clashes that killed at least 73 people, according to Egyptian television.

Violence broke out in the town of Port Said after that city’s team won a rare victory over the visiting Ahly, a powerhouse club from Cairo. Port Said supporters swarmed the field immediately after the game, and players and fans from Ahly ran for cover beneath the stadium and into locker rooms as chaos spread.

The bloodshed stunned a nation that has been enduring protests and violence since last year’s revolution overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.

The locker room “looks like a morgue,” said Ahmed Nagui, an Ahly coach.

There have been sharp animosities between the two teams — Port Said fans attacked an Ahly bus last year — but nothing that suggested the level of hostility that erupted Wednesday night.

The clashes quickly became politically tinged, another sign of how fragile and combustible Egypt is as it unsteadily attempts to move toward democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half of the new parliament, blamed the bloodshed on thugs connected to Mubarak loyalists plotting to destabilize the country.

“The events in Port Said are planned and are a message from the remnants of the former regime,” Essam Erian, a member of parliament with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in a statement.

Security officials fear the riot could provoke retaliation by die-hard Ahly fans, known as Ultras. The group, a mix of university students, workers and pro-democracy advocates, was involved in the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September. Its members also have been on the front lines in recent deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police and soldiers.

Ultras, a catch-phrase for supporters of many clubs, have become an ingrained, if erratic, phenomenon in the anti-government protest movement against the police and the ruling military council. Many regard themselves as protectors of civil liberties who will not hesitate to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at police, as they did in clashes in November and December that killed scores of people.

It is uncertain how they will respond to the soccer melee. Ahly fans have announced a march on the Interior Ministry in Cairo for Thursday. The ministry, barricaded by concrete and barbed wire, is the despised touchstone of the corrupt Mubarak regime and a symbol for many activists of the revolution’s failure to force the military from power.

Smoke colored by flares clung to the spectator stands in Port Said’s stadium as millions of bewildered Egyptians watched the nation’s newest wrinkle of deadly unrest unfold on television. Police appeared both overwhelmed and unwilling to respond, often watching while frantic fans raced past them. One player said the scene looked like a war.

“There are 11 deaths at my hospital. Two other hospitals include 25 deaths. Three fans have also died in the stadium,” Hassan Esnawy, the manager of Port Said’s Amiry hospital, said in a televised interview. “Some died of stampede, and others died of suffocation.”

Egyptian TV later quoted medical authorities as saying at least 73 people had been killed. Some were beaten, but the Health Ministry reported that most appeared to have died of suffocation, head trauma and stampede-related injuries. TV footage showed fans clashing with knives and other weapons. More than 1,000 people were injured.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the nation’s military ruler, dispatched military planes to Port Said to pick up Ahly players and fans and return them to Cairo. The Egyptian parliament called for an emergency session Thursday.

Indications that the situation was unusually volatile occurred when Port Said fans threw fireworks at Ahly players before the match. Hooligans tried unsuccessfully to rush the field during halftime, but there were no confrontations during 90 minutes of play. Moments after the game, which Port Said won 3-1, hooligans sprinted across the field to attack Ahly players and fans.

Two Ahly players were injured, and the team quickly blamed police for not preventing the onslaught.

“The security forces left us, they did not protect us. One fan has just died in the dressing room in front of me,” veteran Ahly player Mohamed Abou-Treika yelled while speaking on the phone to a TV channel. “To hell with football if the situation is like this. … Are people’s lives that cheap?”

Another Ahly player, Mohamed Baraket, said: “People have died, we are seeing corpses now. There are no security forces or army personnel to protect us.”

Ahly’s TV channel reported that Port Said fans blocked ambulances from reaching the field for up to 90 minutes. Those reports could not be independently confirmed. Escaping players and fans rushed toward the locker rooms, where they were trapped as police attempted to regain control.

The bloodshed is likely to affect relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military rulers. Both sides have been negotiating on the parameters of a new constitution and the election of a president in June. Activists have blamed the Brotherhood, once the nation’s most potent opposition, for becoming too cozy with the army.

But shortly after the soccer violence, Erian, the Brotherhood member of parliament, said: “This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police.”

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