CAIRO Seventy-three people were killed and at least 1,000 injured Wednesday when Egyptian soccer fans staged a pitch invasion in the 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 Wednesday'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.
Some enraged Egyptian politicians accused officials still in their jobs after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak of complicity in the tragedy, or at least of allowing a security vacuum in which violence has soared since last year's revolution.
"This is unfortunate and deeply saddening. It is the biggest disaster in Egypt's soccer history," Deputy Health Minister Hesham Sheiha told state television.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's ruling military council, ordered two helicopters be sent to Port Said 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.
Egypt's top Muslim cleric called the events a massacre that violated the words and teachings of Islam.
HISTORY OF RIVALRY
The violence flared after a match between Port Said team al-Masry and Cairo's Al Ahli, one of Egypt's most successful clubs - whose fans have a history of fierce rivalry.
Witnesses said fighting began after Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said and one descended to the pitch carrying an iron bar at the end of the match, which al-Masry won 3-1.
Al-Masry fans reacted by pouring onto the pitch and attacking Ahli players before turning to the terraces to attack rival supporters, including "ultra" al Ahli fans who played a leading role in Egypt's revolution last year.
Most of the deaths were among people who were trampled in the crush of the panicking crowd or who fell from terraces, witnesses and health workers said.
Many fans died in a subsequent stampede, while some were flung off their seats onto the pitch and were killed by the fall. Meanwhile, rioting fans fired flares straight into the stands.
Live television coverage showed 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.
A BLACK DAY FOR FOOTBALL
Sepp Blatter, president of the FIFA world soccer federation, expressed his shock at the tragedy. "This is a black day for football. Such a catastrophic situation is unimaginable and should not happen," he said in a statement.
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 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.
Many of the fans involved were hardline supporters of Ahli who fought during last year's revolution with police, one of the most hated arms of Mubarak's state.
These "ultras" again battled with police in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square in November and December last year in protests calling for the military to hand over power to civilians immediately.
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.
Another match in Cairo was halted by the referee after receiving news of the violence in Port Said, prompting fans to set parts of the stadium on fire, television footage showed.
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti, Yasmine Saleh, Shaimaa Fayed and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Yousri Mohamed in Ismailia; writing by David Stamp; Editing by Jon Boyle)