31 killed in Egypt clashes over death sentences for football fans

The military is deployed to restore calm as protesters storm two police stations in the Port Said. The unrest comes after 21 football fans were sentenced to death for a riot last year.

Relatives of victims in Cairo react after 21 people were sentenced to death over the football riot in Port Said that killed more than 70 people last year. Ahmed Mahmoud / AFP
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PORT SAID, EGYPT // At least 31 people were killed today in violence that erupted after 21 Egyptian football fans and club members were sentenced to death for a deadly post-match riot in Port Said last year.

More than 200 people were also injured, state television reported, citing the health ministry.

The military was deployed to the Mediterranean city after two policemen were shot dead outside the city's main prison when angry relatives tried to storm the facility to free the defendants on trial, security officials said.

Protesters stormed two police stations, Al Sharq and Al Arab, a witness said, and heavy gunfire could also be heard in the Al Manakh neighbourhood.

The clashes began after a Cairo court handed down the death sentences over the football riot last February in which 74 people were killed, and came a day after violence swept Egypt on the second anniversary of its uprising.

As news of the verdict emerged, relatives of those condemned tried to storm the prison where they are being held, leading to fierce clashes with security forces.

Unidentified assailants used automatic weapons against police who responded with tear gas, witnesses said.

Troops are being sent to Port Said, a senior army officer said.

"It has been decided to deploy some units to work for calm and stability and the protection of public establishments," General Ahmed Wasfi said.

Medics said the death toll in the Port Said clashes climbed to eight, but it was not immediately clear if that included the two policemen.

Shops closed and armoured personnel vehicles were deployed as fighting raged in some streets around the prison.

In Cairo, both inside and outside court, there were explosions of joy. Women ululated, relatives hugged and shouted "Allahu Akbar".

One man who lost his son in the Port Said clashes wept outside the court, telling AFP: "I am satisfied with the verdict."

Another, Hassan Mustafa, had pinned a picture of his dead friend to his chest and said he was pleased with the verdict, but wanted "justice served for those who planned the killing".

Last February's riots between fans of home side Al Masry and Cairo's Al Ahly also sparked days of violent protests in Cairo, in which another 16 people were killed.

Many Egyptians believe the violence was orchestrated either by the police or by supporters of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The Cairo court has handed its verdict to Egypt's top cleric for his final opinion, as is customary, and set March 9 for delivering verdicts on another 52 defendants, including police officers.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press