Thursday, February 2, 2012


Cairo (CNN) -- Horrified eyewitnesses 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 suspend indefinitely 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," Amr Khamis, an Ahly supporter told CNN at the train station in Cairo after returning from the match.

"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 following the overthrow of former ruler Hosni Mubarak in 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 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."

The tensions in Cairo could boil over again later on Thursday with a scheduled march by Al-Ahly fans to the interior ministry. This day is also the anniversary of the "Battle of the Camel," one of the bloodiest of last year's 18-day protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood said it believed there was a hidden plot in this "massacre that happened for no reason." The Islamist group, which now controls almost half the seats in parliament, added that police officers "may have punished the citizens for causing a revolution."

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, only releasing them after the military promised to retry five inmates on death row for their role in the 2004-2006 bombings in Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai.

Parliament is holding an emergency session on Thursday to discuss the sporting tragedy while Egypt's military junta has announced three days of mourning. Members of Parliament called for Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and the governor of Port Said to step down during their emergency session.

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

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