Eyewitnesses: Police stood idle in Egypt football massacre

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Eyewitnesses: Police officers stood idle during violent clashes at football stadium

Scores of football supporters were killed; hundreds were critically injured

Police conscripts stood by as rival fans attacked each other with rocks and chairs

Tensions high in Egypt one year after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak

Cairo CNN  — 

Horrified witnesses described how Egyptian police officers stood by as violent clashes between rival fans at a football match in the northeastern city of Port Said left scores dead.

Hundreds of supporters of clubs Al-Ahly and Al-Masry were critically injured in the attacks and as they tried to flee. The violence is one of the world’s worst sporting disasters and prompted officials to indefinitely suspend Egypt’s football premier league.

The attacks started out of sight of television cameras in the stadium’s hallways and terraces. When the referee blew the final whistle, thousands of Al-Masry home team fans stormed the pitch despite their team’s hard-fought 3-1 victory.

See high-res images of the riots

Police conscripts then stood by as rival fans attacked each other with rocks and chairs. “The police did nothing to stop it,” said Amr Khamis, an Al-Ahly supporter, at the train station in Cairo after returning from the match.

Map shows major Egyptian cities

“Officers refused to open the gates of the stadium, so we could not escape and had to face thousands of Al-Masry hooligans attacking with rocks, knives, swords and anything else you can imagine.”

Mamdouh Eid, executive manager of the Al-Ahly fans committee, also blamed officers. “The police stood there watching, and the ambulances arrived late. I carried several dead fans in my arms,” he said.

Tension was building throughout the game, Eid said, as Port Said fans threw bottles and rocks at players.

Hours after the match ended, thousands of Al-Ahly fans – who bore the brunt of the violence – gathered with anti-military protesters at Cairo’s main train station. Families of victims wailed and cried as chants of “down down to military rule” echoed through the station’s hall.

It was unclear whether intense sports rivalries or political strife caused the clashes. However, many supporters blamed the tragedy on the ruling junta that they said had failed them after the overthrow of former ruler Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.

“This orchestrated attack comes a day after the minister of interior failed to convince parliament that the emergency law must be reinstated in order to maintain stability in Egypt,” said Ahmed Fawzy, an Al-Ahly soccer fan who has participated in the protests against both Mubarak and the military council that once reported to him.

On television talk shows, analysts and anchors discussed the massacre, but few could explain why so many fans had died.

Why deadly riots go beyond football

Interior ministry officials blamed the referee for failing to stop the match earlier as signs of violence against players and between the fans became clear.

“There were organized groups in the crowds that purposely provoked the police all through the match and escalated the violence and stormed onto the field after the final whistle,” said Gen. Marwan Mustapha of Egypt’s interior ministry.

“Our policemen tried to contain them but not engage.”

New violence erupted Thursday in Cairo, where protesters confronted police near the Interior Ministry headquarters.

At least 900 people were hurt in clashes near the ministry, officials reported. Protesters remained in the area early Friday.

Egypt has recently experienced a breakdown in security, with several armed robberies, kidnappings and random killings taking place across the country in the past week alone.

A French tourist was caught in crossfire and killed in Sinai during an armed robbery at a foreign currency exchange, an HSBC bank was robbed in broad daylight, and a busy Cairo street was blocked by families of an angry bus driver who was shot dead by another angry driver. Bedouins from Sinai also kidnapped 25 Chinese workers for 24 hours on Tuesday, releasing them only after the military promised to retry five inmates on death row for their role in the 2004-06 bombings in Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai.

Parliament held an emergency session on Thursday to discuss the sporting tragedy, while Egypt’s military junta has announced three days of mourning.

Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri suspended Port Said’s security chief and the head of police investigation. The two men will face an inquiry. Ganzouri also accepted the resignation of Port Said’s governor.

It remains to be seen now whether the Port Said massacre further stirs tensions that were already high after the first anniversary of the January 25 uprising.

Journalist Ian Lee contributed to this report.