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Egypt charges 75 people in deadly Port Said football riot

Scores of fans face murder charges and nine police officers were accused of complicity in murder, in the February 1 riot.

CAIRO // Egypt's top prosecutor yesterday charged 75 people in connection with a football riot last month in Port Said that killed 74 people.

Scores of fans face murder charges and nine police officers were accused of complicity in murder, in the February 1 riot in which authorities said fans were thrown to their death off the stadium walls and others killed by explosives as they tried to flee.

It was the world's worst football-related disaster in 15 years.

The riot began minutes after the final whistle in a league game between Cairo club Al Ahly and Al Masry of Port Said. Masry won 3-1 but its fans set upon the rival supporters in a killing frenzy that witnesses said lasted 30 minutes. Many witnesses claimed that policemen at the venue did nothing to stop the bloodshed.

The riot shocked football-crazy Egypt, deepening the sense of uncertainty felt by many as their nation continues to be roiled by violence a year after the longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. That senior police officers were charged in connection with the tragedy would lend credence to persistent claims that the nation's much-hated police were deliberately turning a blind eye to the wave of violent crime gripping Egypt over the past year.

Police have yet to fully retake the streets after they melted away on the fourth day of the 18-day popular uprising that toppled Mubarak.

An end to police brutality was among the main root causes of the uprising and many rights activists believe the police's apparent reluctance to restore security is payback for their humiliating defeat in the face of millions of unarmed protesters.

The prosecutor general said in a statement that nine police officers, including six major generals and a colonel, participated in the Port Said riot by way of "assistance" to Al Masry fans. They said the officers, along with several Al Masry officials, knew in advance that the home fans planned to attack Al Ahly supporters.

They allowed Al Masry fans to exceed by 3,000 the maximum number authorised to attend the game and did not search any of them for weapons before they were allowed inside the ground, the prosecutor said. Many of the charged fans were criminals known to the local police, the prosecutor said.

"Those from the police among the defendants failed to take any measure ... to maintain security, protect lives and property," the prosecutor said, in what is probably the strongest official condemnation of the police's attitude towards the rise of crime in Egypt.

The nine police officers included Major General Issam Samak, who was Port Said's chief of security at the time of the riot. Gen Samak has already been suspended.

The prosecutor's statement said the charges were based on video footage of the riot and the confessions of suspects. It said the killing of the protesters was planned in advance and that the suspects prepared for the massacre with knifes, rocks and explosives. Fans from the two teams have a history of animosity, but no one had expected that the heated rivalry could turn murderous.

Among those charged is the chief electrical engineer of the Port Said stadium, a fact that alludes to numerous witness accounts that power inexplicably went out at the venue minutes after the final whistle. The darkness, according to witnesses, helped the assailants to attack with impunity.