CAIRO - Egyptian soccer fans rampaged through the heart of Cairo on Saturday, furious about the acquittal of seven police officers while death sentences against 21 alleged rioters were confirmed in a trial over a stadium melee that left 74 people dead.
The case of the Feb. 1, 2012 stadium riot in the city of Port Said at the northern tip of the Suez Canal has taken on political undertones not just because police faced allegations of negligence in the tragedy but also because the verdicts were announced at a time when Egypt is in the grip of the latest and most serious bout of political turmoil in the two years since Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
Saturday's verdicts also were handed down against the backdrop of an unprecedented wave of strikes by the nation's police force over demands for better working conditions and anger over what many believe are attempts by President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to take control of the police force.
An Egyptian man walks on the grounds of a police officer's club as a fire set by protesters burns in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday. An Egyptian court on Saturday confirmed the death sentences against 21 people for taking part in a deadly soccer riot but acquitted seven police officials for their alleged role in the violence.
Tensions over the riot - which began when supporters of Port Said's Al-Masry club set upon fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly club after the final whistle of a league game that the home team won - have fueled some of the deadliest street violence in months. Police guarding the stadium, meanwhile, faced allegations ranging from not searching people entering the stadium to failing to intervene to stop the bloodshed.
Shortly after the verdict was announced Saturday, angry fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly club who had gathered in the thousands outside the team's headquarters in central Cairo went on a rampage, torching a police club nearby and storming Egypt's soccer federation headquarters before setting it ablaze.
The twin fires sent plumes of thick black smoke billowing out over the Cairo skyline, prompting Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to dispatch two army helicopters to extinguish the fires.
At least five people were injured in the protests over the verdict, a Health Ministry official told the MENA state news agency.
Some demonstrators in Port Said also burnt tires on the city's dock to prevent vessels from coming in and released speedboats into traffic lanes of the Suez Canal in attempts, foiled by the navy, to disrupt shipping in the vital waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
A spokesman for the Suez Canal Authority said shipping was not affected and 41 vessels transited the waterway on Saturday.
General unrest also continued elsewhere in the Egyptian capital, which has seen unrelenting demonstrations and clashes between security forces and an opposition that accuses Morsi of trying to monopolize power in the hands of his Islamist allies.
Two protesters also were killed and 19 injured in clashes elsewhere in the capital that appeared unrelated to the soccer violence, national ambulance service chief Mohammed Sultan said. The fighting occurred near two luxury hotels and the U.S. and British embassies.