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Egypt football fans on rampage against Port Said verdict


An Egyptian court on Saturday confirmed death sentences against 21 people for their role in a deadly 2012 football massacre that killed more than 70 people in the city of Port Said, sparking violent unrest in the restless Suez Canal city and in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Egypt's Interior Ministry declared a state of emergency in the Sinai peninsula on Saturday over intelligence on jihadi plots against the police.

The court also sentenced the city's former security chief, Major-General Essam Samak, to 15 years in prison. Samak was the most senior of nine security officials tried for their part in the riot. Another police official, a colonel, was also sentenced to 15 years in prison. The other seven were acquitted.

Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid, who read out the verdict at a Cairo courthouse, sentenced five more defendants to life in prison and eight others besides Samak and the police colonel to 15 years in jail. Six defendants received 10-year jail terms, two more got five years and a single defendant received a 12-month sentence. A total of 28 people were acquitted.

A lawyer for 11 defendants, eight of whom were acquitted and one received a life term, said he would appeal the sentences.

"It's a political ruling. This judge tried to achieve a balance, but everyone is displeased with the rulings," Ashraf al-Ezzabi told AFP by phone from outside the heavily secured courtroom in Cairo.

The trial has been the source of some of the worst unrest in recent weeks to hit Egypt, which is already grappling with mass political protests and a crumbling economy. After the 21 people most of them fans of Port Said's al-Masry football club were first sentenced to death on January 28, violent riots erupted in the city that left some 40 people dead, most of them shot by police.

After the verdict was made public, about 2,000 protesters in Port Said blocked car ferries from crossing the Suez Canal, as others untied moored speedboats used to supply shipping on the canal, apparently hoping the boats would drift into the waterway and disrupt passing vessels, witnesses said.

But Port Said's reaction was muted compared to Egypt's capital. Thousands of fans of Cairo's al-Ahly football club the other team involved in the deadly 2012 riot gathered outside the club's headquarters in Cairo to celebrate the verdict, chanting slogans and firing flares.

But many were angry over the exoneration of seven police officials on trial in the case. A large group of hardcore football fans, known as the Ultras, stormed into Egypt's football federation headquarters in Cairo and set it ablaze. Another angry crowd set fire to a police officers' club complex in the capital, although it was not immediately clear whether they were al-Ahly supporters.

Firetrucks were attacked by Ultras with rocks and Molotov cocktails while on their way to the two arson sites, according to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

The headquarters of al-Watan were also allegedly stormed by Ultras upset over an article published by the newspaper.

Al-Ahram reported that security forces had closed down all streets leading to the Interior Ministry and the Cairo Security Directorate to prevent protesters from gathering there.

The Health Ministry said that at least five people had been injured so far in the two fires.

Many residents of Port Said have seen the trial as unjust and politicized, and football fans in the city have felt that authorities were biased in favor of al-Ahly and its supporters.

The February 2012 riot followed a league match between al-Masry and Cairo's al-Ahly club, with Port Said supporters setting upon the visiting fans after the final whistle. The deadly melee is Egypt's worst football disaster.

During clashes between police and protesters the past week that killed eight people, Port Said also saw dangerous frictions between police and the military. Army troops trying to break up the clashes at one point fired over the heads of police forces, which had been shooting tear gas in their direction.

At least some of the anger city residents feel for the police was in part defused on Friday when police handed over security control in the city to the military.

In the Sinai Peninsula, the Interior Ministry raised a state of emergency, saying it had intelligence that jihadis might attack police there, state news agency MENA reported.

"The Minister of Interior has raised the level of emergency in North and South Sinai after receiving information that jihadi groups intend to attack police buildings there," Interior Ministry official General Osama Ismail said, according to MENA.

Officials have expressed growing worries about security in the desert region which borders Israel and is home to a number of tourist resorts.

In August last year Islamist militant gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian policemen in an assault on a police station at the border between Egypt and Israel, before seizing two military vehicles and attempting to storm the border.

President Mohammed Mursi has pledged to get a grip on security in Egypt but struggled to assert control over an entrenched security establishment. Last week thousands of riot police and conscripts across the country went on strike over a variety of grievances.

(AP, Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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