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Egypt police, protesters clash


CAIRO Anger over a deadly soccer riot erupted in fresh clashes that injured nearly 400 people on Thursday as security forces fired teargas at fans and other protesters who accused police of failing to stop the violence.

The bloodshed which comes as security has been steadily deteriorating threatened to plunge the country into a new crisis nearly a year after a popular uprising forced former leader Hosni Mubarak to step down.

A network of rabid soccer fans known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them after Wednesdays Egyptian league match in the seaside city of Port Said because they have been at the forefront of protests over the past year, first against Mubarak and now the military that assumed power after his February 11 ouster.

The riot in Port Said began when local Al-Masry fans stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Cairo-based Al-Ahly, one of Egypts most popular clubs and began attacking their rivals, forcing hundreds in to a narrow stadium exit, only to be crushed against a locked gate.

The fighting was rooted in a long-standing, deep rivalry between the two teams, but it rapidly took on a political tone as lawmakers and the public widely denounced the police for standing by as the violence escalated.

Some Al-Ahly fans said they had hung banners making fun of Al-Masry supporters in Port Said before the game, apparently provoking the local fans to riot despite their victory.

Tensions spread to Cairo as many of the dead were brought home for burial and the wounded joined the protests, some in tears, clearly in distraught for the loss of friends.

The police force, which has been at the heart of the Egyptian grievances leading to the uprising, has remained a source of tension after Mubaraks ouster.

The police have been accused of continuing to use heavy-handed tactics and resisting reform. But they also found themselves at times unable to manage crowds, fearing they would be vilified.

What began Thursday as a peaceful march from the Al-Ahly headquarters in Cairo descended into fury as more than 10 000 protesters reached the area outside the Interior Ministry building near Tahrir Square, the epicentre of last years popular uprising that ousted Mubarak.

Adel Adawi, a Health ministry official, was quoted by the state-run news agency as saying 388 protesters were injured outside the Interior ministry, most from teargas inhalation as well as bruises and broken bones from rocks that were thrown.

The protesters raised flags of Al-Ahly and Zamalek, another top team with its own Ultras group, and Egyptian flags. Some held black banners reading: Mourning.

Chants calling for the execution of the countrys military rulers, led by Mubaraks defence minister of two decades, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, rang through the area, as the protesters marched from the square to the barricaded area surrounding the Interior Ministry.

We dreamed of change. They fooled us and brought us a field marshal instead, the protesters chanted. Some appealed to the army to side with the people and ask the top generals to quit. Our army must choose between the military council and the revolutionaries, they chanted.

Riot police guarding the area were separated from the protesters by barricades of concrete blocs and barbed wire that were erected around the ministry in November, when clashes between the police and protesters then left more than 40 people dead.

But tensions rose as protesters advanced toward them, cursing and removing some of the barriers.

They also raised their shoes in the air and hurled stones. Security forces responded with heavy teargas, sending demonstrators running, with some passing out and falling to the ground.

Protesters set tyres on fire, sending black smoke into the air. Motorcycle drivers ferried some of those wounded from the site as ambulances were unable to get through. Egyptian state TV said 100 people had passed out from the teargas.

A smaller group of protesters defiantly inched closer to the ministry and some were heard threatening to storm the building, but they were met with a new hail of teargas. One young man, who climbed atop a traffic light waving a flag, was unmoved despite being enveloped in smoke.

Taha Mahfouz, a protester, managed to snatch riot gear from one of the security forces. He wore the helmet, and waved the club.

We are only across the street from the ministry, Mahfouz said. They cant protect their stuff. How can they protect the country?

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