The death toll from rioting in the Egyptian city of Port Said has risen to 31, health officials said Sunday, as army troops backed by tanks and armoured vehicles staked out positions at key government facilities to try to restore order.
The violence erupted Saturday after a court handed down death sentences to almost two dozen local fans involved in a deadly melee at a Port Said soccer game last year. Immediately after the ruling was announced, angry residents and young men went on a rampage in the city, attacking the prison where the defendants were being held and trying to storm police stations and government offices.
The street clashes in Port Said were the latest in a bout of unrest that has left a total of 42 people dead in two days, including 11 killed in clashes between police and protesters marking Friday’s second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew - leader Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday, clashes continued for the fourth successive between protesters and police near Cairo’s central Tahrir square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Police used tear gas, while the protesters pelted them with rocks.
The bloodshed highlights the challenges facing President Mohammed Morsi, who took office nearly seven months ago following the uprising that ousted Mubarak. Critics say Morsi has failed to carry out promised reforms in the country’s judiciary and police force, and claim little has improved in the two years after the uprising against Mubarak.
As the situation spiraled out of control Saturday, police disappeared from Port Said’s streets, residents and security officials said.
The military then dispatched troops to the city, which is located on the northern tip of the Suez Canal. Soldiers took up positions at vital state facilities, including the local power and water stations, the city’s main courthouse, the local government building and the city prison. Navy sailors were guarding the local offices of the Suez Canal company.
Navy vessels were escorting merchant ships sailing through the international waterway, and army helicopters were flying over the canal to ensure the safety of shipping, according to Suez Canal spokesman Tareq Hassanein.
Residents said Port Said was quiet overnight except for the intermittent bursts of gunfire. The city was still on edge Sunday, although a degree of calm had returned. Streets were largely deserted, stores were closed for the second successive day, and some hotels asked guests to leave, fearing more violence.
Funerals for those killed on Saturday were to be held later Sunday, and residents said they expected more street clashes after the city buries its dead.
The officials and residents spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Saturday’s riot in Port Said mostly stemmed from animosity between police and die-hard soccer fans know as Ultras, who also were part of the uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime.
The Ultras were at the forefront of protests against the military generals who took over from Mubarak and are now again on the frontlines of protests against the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Survivors and witnesses of the Feb. 1 soccer melee in Port Said say Mubarak loyalists had a hand in instigating the killings, which began after Port Said’s home team Al-Masry beat Cairo’s Al-Ahly 3-1. Some say “hired thugs” wearing green T-shirts posing as Al-Masry fans led the attacks.
Others say, at the very least, police were responsible for gross negligence in the soccer violence, which killed 74 people, most of them Al-Ahly fans.
Anger at police was evident in Port Said, home to most of the 73 men accused of involvement in the bloodshed, although the trial was held outside Cairo.
Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid did not give his reasoning when he handed down the sentences for 21 defendants on Saturday. Executions in Egypt are usually carried out by hanging.
Verdicts for the remaining 52 defendants, including nine security officials, are scheduled to be delivered March 9. Some have been charged with murder and others with assisting the attackers. All the defendants who were not present in the courtroom Saturday for security reasons can appeal the verdict.