CAIRO: Soldiers clashed with thousands of angry soccer fans in a Mediterranean coastal city over the suspension of their club following a deadly riot last month, witnesses said Saturday. A medical official said a teenager was killed and 68 people injured.
The Feb. 1 melee following a match in the city of Port Said in which at least 73 people died was the world’s worst soccer-related disaster in 15 years. The causes remain murky. Officers have been charged with assisting Port Said fans attack supporters of a Cairo club who had a long history of enmity with the police, and some port residents have claimed that hired outsiders were responsible for much of the violence.
In the latest clashes, Egyptian troops fired volleys of tear gas and shot into in the air to disperse protesters affiliated with Port Said’s Al-Masry club, angry over what they see as unfair measures against their club and their city. Violence erupted late Friday and continued through Saturday.
Witnesses said that protesters set fire to tires, blocked major roads before gathering in front of the Suez Canal’s main administrative building in an attempt to storm it. Soldiers and police cordoned off the building.
Military police fired shots in the air to disperse hundreds of soccer fans protesting outside the Suez Canal Authority building in Port Said late on Friday, witnesses said.
“Hundreds of angry fans clashed with military police after the decision was announced,” one witness said.
Activists in the city say that families of fans who were arrested after the deadly stadium riot used to hold peaceful protests, but “instigators” have turned their peaceful protests into violent ones.
Security forces said on Sunday they had arrested 15 people.
“Fifteen suspects were arrested during the clashes that took place between the army and protesters in front of the Suez Canal Authority building in Port Said,” a security source told Reuters.
A medical official said teenager Belal Mamdouh was killed by a gunshot to the back. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press, said 68 people were injured with gunshots and breathing difficulties from tear gas.
A medical source said at least two more suffered gunshot wounds.
The clashes originally erupted after the Egyptian Football Association on Friday officially suspended Al-Masry for two seasons ending 2013, and closed its stadium for three years as punishment for the stadium riot.
“People are upset that the club is being punished and feel that the problem is not with them, but with the security forces who failed to do their job,” said Sameh Abdel-Khaleq, a Port Said resident observing the protests.
Protesters blocked workers Saturday from entering an industrial part of the city known as the investor’s area, which is comprised of mostly factories, said Abdel-Khaleq, a manager at one of the factories.
Protesters, however, denounced what they described as a media campaign against their club. Hours before the protests broke out, one well-known sports presenter, a former soccer goalkeeper, said that the measures were not enough.
Street fighting renewed Saturday evening as protesters hurled rocks at military forces, who responded with salvos of tear gas. Ambulances rushed to the area to treat the injured.
The clashes erupted after the funeral of the person who was shot. Protesters smashed the front of police and army clubs in the city and marched towards the canal authority’s building. Police fired teargas and shot into the air.
“I haven’t seen a worse day than what Port Said is going through today,” said Hany Abu Taleb, 28, a student in Port Said. “I demand the suspension of the decision (to ban the club) or its amendment … We refuse to have the football league without Port Said.”
Port Said harbor was closed on Saturday morning because of the protests and ships using the Suez Canal were directed to a secondary route east of the city, sources at the Suez Canal Authority and Port Said harbour said.
Shops were closed and many city residents stayed in their homes. Army and police stepped up security outside government buildings.
The Feb. 1 riot began minutes after a league match between Cairo club Al-Ahly, the most popular in Egypt, and Al-Masry. The home side won 3-1, but fans were upset for what they said were obscene signs raised by Al-Ahly fans.
Survivors of the stadium riot say men wielding batons, knifes, and fireworks streamed from Al-Masry stands and stormed the field to attack Al-Ahly supporters, stabbing them and tossing them off bleachers while the police looked on.
Egypt’s general prosecutor charged 75 people, including nine senior police officers, with assisting the attackers. The officers, along with several Al-Masry officials, allegedly knew in advance that the home fans planned to attack Al-Ahly supporters, yet they were allowed to enter the grounds without being searched for weapons as is customary in soccer matches.
The policemen also allegedly allowed 3,000 more people into the stadium than the maximum number authorized to attend the game.
The prosecution said that many of them were criminals known to the local police. It said the killing of the protesters was planned in advance and that the culprits prepared for the massacre with knifes, rocks and explosives. Fans from the two teams have a history of animosity.
Some witnesses have given accounts about “thugs” brought in from outside, but among those charged, more than 60 of them are Al-Masry fans.
During the February pitch invasion, steel doors at the stadium were bolted shut, trapping fans trying to escape from the stands. Dozens were crushed to death.
The melee sparked days of street protests. Most of the dead were members of the Ultras Ahlawy, a group of avid politicized soccer fans who have long enmity with the police. Ultras have played a key role in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Ahly fans regularly taunt the police, who disappeared from the streets during the 18-day upheaval.
Activists have accused the police of turning a blind eye during the riots or even helping organize the attack, in retaliation for the al-Ahly fans’ role during the uprising.
A month after the riots, Port Said remains stigmatized. Residents say they are collectively blamed for the violence and have described their situation as a “siege,” with merchants and other visitors staying away from the city.