(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Seventy-three people were killed and at least 1,000 injured yesterday after a soccer pitch invasion in the Egyptian city of Port Said, in what a deputy minister called the biggest disaster in the nation's soccer history.
Violence at football matches across North Africa has increased significantly since political unrest began sweeping the region more than a year ago, and one player described yesterday's riot as "a war, not football".
Angry politicians and sports officials decried a lack of security at the match between Port Said team Al Masry and Al Ahli, one of Egypt's most successful clubs, and blamed the nation's leaders for allowing - or even causing - the tragedy.
The trouble flared at the end of a match when Al Masry beat Al Ahli 3-1.
"This is unfortunate and deeply saddening. It is the biggest disaster in Egypt's soccer history," Deputy Health Minister Hesham Sheiha told state television.
Witnesses said trouble broke out when Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said and an Ahli supporter descended onto the pitch carrying an iron bar. Al Masry fans reacted by pouring onto the pitch and attacking Ahli players. They then turned to the terraces to attack Ahli supporters.
Most of the deaths were among people who were trampled in the crush of the panicking crowd or who fell from terraces, witnesses said.
Live television coverage show ed fans running onto the field and chasing Ahli players. A small group of riot police formed a corridor to try to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were still able to kick and punch the players as they fled.
"This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances," Ahli player Mohamed Abo Treika told his club's television channel.
"I call for the premier league to be cancelled. This is horrible situation and today can never be forgotten."
State television reported that Egypt's football federation had indefinitely suspended premier league matches.
Egypt's Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the country's ruling military council, ordered two helicopters be sent to Port Said, the scene of violent soccer clashes, to fly out some of the visiting Al Ahli soccer team and its fans, military sources said.
The helicopters would transfer the injured to military hospitals, the sources said.
Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, accused officials and security forces of allowing the disaster, saying they still had ties to the government of Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown a year ago.
"The security forces did this or allowed it to happen. The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions," he screamed in a telephone call to live television.
"Where is the security? Where is the government?"
A number of policemen were among the dead, a medical source and witnesses said.
Hospitals throughout the Suez Canal zone were put on a state of emergency, and dozens of ambulances rushed to Port Said from the Canal cities of Ismailia and Suez, said an official in the zone's local ambulance service.
Medics said some of the deaths were the result of stab wounds and that the death toll could rise even further as ambulances continued to ferry in the injured from the stadium.
Shops in Port Said, which sits at the entrance to the Suez Canal, shut their doors as private cars helped to shuttle the injured across the city to hospitals.
Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmud has ordered an immediate investigation into the violence, state television reported.
Parliament speaker Saad al-Katatni, a member of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, said that the People's Assembly would hold an emergency session today to discuss the violence.
Newly elected liberal deputy Amr Hamzawi has called for the immediate sacking of the interior minister as well as the governor and security chief of Port Said.
State television broadcast footage of chaos on the pitch, with fans running in all directions, as photos of bleeding players circulated on the Internet.
Gunfire was also reported on the main road leading to Port Said from Cairo.
In the capital itself, a fire broke out at Cairo Stadium during the first half of a match between Zamalek and Ismaili clubs, prompting officials to cancel the fixture.
Emergency services managed to bring the blaze under control, a security official said.
Since last February's ouster of Mubarak, Egypt has seen sporadic and sometimes deadly unrest coupled with a sharp rise in crime, linked to the scarcity of the unpopular police, who were heavily criticised for their crackdown on protesters during the uprising.
Earlier yesterday, gunmen raided a money transfer company in Cairo, state news agency Mena reported, bringing to five the number of armed robberies in less than a week in a country previously unaccustomed to such incidents.
In the capital, with its population of 20mn, crimes such as car theft have also become more widespread over the past 12 months.