Cairo: Witnesses say scores of Egyptian soccer fans were stabbed to death while many others suffocated, trapped in a long narrow corridor trying to flee rival fans armed with knives, clubs and stones in the country`s worst ever soccer violence that killed at least 74 people.
The tragedy on Wednesday evening — which followed an Egyptian league match between Al-Masry, the home team in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, and Al-Ahly, based in Cairo and one of Egypt`s most popular teams — was a bloody reminder of the deteriorating security in the Arab world`s most populous country, as instability continues nearly a year after former president Hosni Mubarak was swept out of power in a popular uprising.
It was also the deadliest soccer violence worldwide since 1996. One player said it was "like a war”.
Egyptian activists have accused the police and military of failing to intervene to stop the mayhem.
On Thursday morning, dozens of angry protesters sealed off Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, while others blocked the street in front of the state TV building in downtown Cairo, ahead of planned marches later in the day to the Interior Ministry to denounce the police force.
The melee at the stadium in Port Said erupted when Al-Masry fans stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly. Al-Masry supporters, armed with knives, sticks and stones chased players and fans from the rival team, Al-Ahly, who ran toward the exits and up the stands to escape, according to witnesses.
Ahmed Ghaffar, one of the visiting Al Ahly fans at the stadium, said "layers of people" were stuck trying to escape, "suffocating inside a narrow corridor”.
"The people were stuck over each other because there was no other exist," Ghaffar tweeted on Thursday. "We were between two choices, either death coming from behind us, or the closed doors."
Health Ministry official Hisham Sheha said deaths were caused by stabs by sharp tools, brain haemorrhage and concussions. "All those carried to hospitals were already dead bodies," Sheha told state-TV.
One man told state TV he heard gunshots in the stadium, while a lawmaker from Egypt`s powerful Muslim Brotherhood said the police didn`t prevent fans carrying knives from entering the stadium.
TV footage showed Al-Ahly players rushing for their locker 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. Black-clothed police officers 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.
State TV appealed to Egyptians to donate blood for the injured in Port Said, and the military sent two aircraft to evacuate serious cases to the capital, Cairo.
A number of political parties called on the Egyptian parliament to pass no-confidence vote against the government of Kamal el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era politician appointed by the much-criticised ruling military council. El-Ganzouri himself held an emergency cabinet meeting early Thursday.
Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood lawmaker, 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.
The trigger for the violence, however, remains a mystery since most of the attackers were from the winning team.
April 6 group, which was among youth groups that led the anti-Mubarak uprising, accused the ruling military of collaboration in the violence.
"Is it logical that the force that managed to secure Parliamentary Elections in nine provinces can`t secure a soccer match where skirmishes among fans were expected," the group said in a statement on Thursday.