Egypt's parliament has scheduled an emergency session on Thursday to investigate the causes of a riot at a soccer game that left more than 70 people dead and 1,000 injured.
Officials in Port Said, where the violence occurred on Wednesday, raised the death toll to 74 after fans of rival soccer teams rushed the field, hurling stones and sticks at each other and sparking a stampede. Citing the Health Ministry, state television reported another 1,000 people were injured in the riot.
The riot was the worst case of soccer violence in Egypt's history and the deadliest worldwide since 1996. One player said it was "like a war."
Witnesses said most of the deaths appeared to have occurred in a stampede after fans of the home team, Al-Masry, stormed on to the field following an upset 3-1 victory against Al-Ahly, Egypt's top team whose home is Cairo.
A medical official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the dead included an unknown number of security officers. Another official said most of the injuries appeared to have been caused by blunt objects and knives, suggesting the few security officers on hand were either unwilling or unable to prevent weapons from being brought into the stadium.
Egypt's state prosecutor has ordered an immediate investigation into the causes of the deaths, as authorities, including religious leaders, urged people to contain their emotions.
The history of "the beautiful game" includes several deadly incidents, including:
- Argentina, 2007 — A penalty called during injury time in a match between Tigre and Nueva Chicago sparked a riot that left one person dead and 41 injured. Seventy-eight people were arrested.
- Italy, 2005 — Inter Milan fans fire flares and missiles on to the pitch during a UEFA Champions League playoff game between AC Milan. The AC Milan goalkeeper was hit with a flare before the match was called off.
- Ghana, 2001 — Police fired teargas at rowdy fans during a soccer match between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, two of Ghana’s top teams. The ensuing stampede killed 126 people.
- Peru, 1964 — During an Olympic qualifying match in Lima between Peru and Argentina the referee disallowed a Peruvian goal two minutes from the end of the match, sparking a riot that left 318 people dead and more than 500 with serious injuries.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest political force, accused supporters of ousted President Hosni Mubarak of instigating the violence.
"The events in Port Said are planned and are a message from the remnants of the former regime," parliamentarian Essam al-Erian said in a statement on the group's Freedom and Justice Party website translated by the Al-Jazeera news network.
However, other observers said the riot did not appear to be directly linked to the political turmoil in Egypt, but the violence raised fresh concerns about the ability of the state police to manage crowds. Most of the hundreds of black-uniformed police with helmets and shields stood in lines and did nothing as the clash grew bloody.
Security officials said the ministry has issued directives for its personnel not to "engage" with civilians after recent clashes between police and protesters in November left more than 40 people dead.
The violence also underscored the role of soccer fans in Egypt's recent protest movement. Organized fans, in groups known as ultras, have played an important role in the revolution and rallies against military rule. Their anti-police songs, peppered with curses, have quickly become viral and an expression of the hatred many Egyptians feel toward security forces that were accused of much of the abuse that was widespread under Mubarak's regime.
Activists quickly scheduled rallies Thursday outside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Cairo to protest the inability of the police to stop the bloodshed. Many gathered outside Al-Ahly club in Cairo, chanting slogans against military rule, and hundreds filed into Cairo's main train station to receive the injured arriving from Port Said.
In Port Said, residents marched early Thursday, denouncing the violence and saying it was a conspiracy by the military and police to cause chaos.
Army tanks and armoured vehicles joined police patrolling near hospitals and morgues. Police were not to be seen in the streets after the violence and were unavailable to break up fights that followed.
Mohamad Shaban, who witnessed the riot, told CBC News soccer matches featuring top teams typically have a lot of security and police to contain potential violence.
"We used to have a big security from the police but this time we don't know what happened," Shaban said. "The people after the game — a lot of people — came down to the land and tried to go to the people and they hit each other."
The head of the country's ruling military council ordered two helicopters be sent immediately to Port Said to bring the Cairo team home. The players were taken to the locker room for protection, Sayed Hamdi, a player, told state TV.
"This is not football, this is a war and people are dying in front of us," Ahli player Abo Treika told the team's television channel. "There is no movement and no security and no ambulances. I call for the Premier League to be cancelled. This is horrible situation and today can never be forgotten."
Soon after the violence, a soccer game in Cairo Stadium between the Al-Ismailiya and Zamalek teams was called off in mourning for the violence in Port Said.
That apparently outraged Zamalek's fans, who set some sections of the stadium on fire, state radio reported. No injuries were reported and employees said firefighters extinguished the blaze before it caused much damage.