CAIRO >> At least 74 people were killed and hundreds injured after soccer fans rushed the field in the seaside city of Port Said Wednesday following an upset victory by the home team over Egypt’s top club, setting off clashes and a stampede as riot police largely failed to intervene.
It was a bloody reminder of the deteriorating security in the Arab world’s most populous country as instability continues nearly a year after former President Hosni Mubarak was swept out of power in a popular uprising.
The melee — which followed an Egyptian league match between Al-Masry, the home team in the Mediterranean city, and Al-Ahly, based in Cairo and one of Egypt’s most popular teams — was the worst case of soccer violence in Egypt and the deadliest worldwide since 1996. One player said it was "like a war."
In Cairo, fans angered that another match between Al-Ismaili and Zamalek was halted because of the Port Said violence set fire to the bleachers at the main stadium in the Egyptian capital, authorities said. No injuries were reported, and employees said firefighters extinguished the blaze before it caused much damage.
The clashes and ensuing stampede 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 soccer fans chased each other, some wielding sharp objects and others hurling sticks and rocks.
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.
There have been other recent violent incidents at soccer games. In April, the ineffectiveness of the police force also was on display when thousands of fans ran onto the field before the end of an African Champions League game between local club Zamalek and Tunisia’s Club Africain. The hundreds of police on duty at Cairo International Stadium could not stop the violence then, either.
Activists 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. "We die like them, or we ensure their rights," the crowd chanted, along with slogans denouncing the military rulers.
As the train arrived, scores jumped on top of the train and raised Egyptian flags.
"They came at us with machetes and knives…they threw some of us from the fourth floor," one returning fan told the private TV station ONTV.
"Everyone was beating us. They were beating us from inside and outside, with fireworks, stones, metal bars, and some had knives, I swear," another fan told the station, which did not give their names.
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 armored 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.
The tension also spread to the nearby Suez province. About 500 protesters, including soccer fans and activists, gathered outside the main police headquarters to protest what they called police negligence.
A security official said the police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.
The scuffles erupted when fans of Al-Masry stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly. Al-Masry supporters hurled sticks and stones as they chased players and fans from the rival team, who ran toward the exits and up the stands to escape, according to witnesses. One man told state TV he heard gunshots in the stadium, while a lawmaker from Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood said the police didn’t prevent fans carrying knives from entering the stadium.
TV footage showed Al-Ahly players rushing for their locker room as fistfights broke out among the hundreds of fans swarming on to the field. Some men had to rescue a manager from the losing team as he was being beaten. Black-clothed police officers stood by, appearing overwhelmed.
The Interior Ministry said 74 people died, including one police officer, and 248 were injured, 14 of them police. A local health official initially said 1,000 people were injured and it was not clear how severely. Security forces arrested 47 people for involvement in the violence, the statement said.
State TV appealed to Egyptians to donate blood for the injured in Port Said, and the military sent two aircraft to evacuate serious cases to the capital, Cairo.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military leadership that assumed power after Mubarak’s ouster, welcomed Al-Ahly team players who were flown back to Cairo from Port Said on a military aircraft.
"This will not bring Egypt down," he told reporters at a military air base east of Cairo. "These incidents happen anywhere in the world. We will not let those behind it go …This will not affect Egypt and its security."
The military declared three days of mourning starting Thursday.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim told state TV that 13,000 Al-Masry fans stormed the field, jumping a low fence and attacking about 1,200 Al-Ahly fans. He transferred the Port Said local security chief to a desk job as a punitive measure.
Al-Ahly goalkeeper Sharif Ikrami, who was injured in the melee, told the private station ONTV that dead and wounded were being carried into the locker room.
"There were people dying in front of us," he said. "It’s over. We’ve all made a decision that we won’t play soccer any more. How will we play soccer after 70 people died? We can’t think about it."
Hesham Sheiha, a health ministry official, said most of the deaths were caused by concussions, deep head wounds and suffocation from the stampede. He said 40 people were seriously injured.
In an interview with the team’s station, Mohammed Abu Trika, a player with Al-Ahly, criticized police for standing by and not intervening in the violence.
"People here are dying and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war," he told the team TV station. "Is life this cheap?"
Egypt’s state prosecutor ordered an immediate investigation into the violence, and the Egypt Football Association ordered an indefinite suspension of the league games. The parliament said it would convene an emergency session.
The two sides also traded conspiracy theories, with each side blaming the other for trying to destabilize the country.
Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood lawmaker, said the military and police were complicit in the violence, accusing them of trying to show that emergency regulations giving security forces wide-ranging powers must be maintained.
"This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police," he said.
The manager of the Al-Masry, Kamal Abu Ali, announced he also was resigning in protest.
"This is not about soccer. This is bigger than that. This is a plot to topple the state," he told the same station, using an often-cited allegation by the military against protesters.
Bob Bradley, the former U.S. national team coach who was hired in September as coach of Egypt’s national team, was not at the stadium, U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman Michael Kammarman said.
It was the deadliest incident of soccer violence since Oct. 16, 1996, when at least 78 people died and 180 others were injured in a stampede at a stadium in Guatemala City before a World Cup qualifying match between Guatemala and Costa Rica.
The Port Said game was a face-off between two teams with a long history of fierce competition, Al-Masry, the home team, and Al-Ahly, a record 36-time winner of the Egyptian league and a six-time winner of the African Champions League.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he was "shocked and saddened" by the deaths.
"This is a black day for football. Such a catastrophic situation is unimaginable and should not happen," he said in a statement.
The Confederation of African Football, which organizes the African Cup, said a minute’s silence would be held before all quarterfinals this weekend as a mark of respect for the dead.
CAF President Issa Hayatou said, "African football is in a state of mourning."
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard and Maggie Michael in Cairo and Gerald Imray in Franceville, Gabon contributed to this report.