More than 150 people died Saturday night after a professional soccer match in Malang, Indonesia, when fans rushed the field, prompting police to fire tear gas into tightly packed crowds, causing many to be trampled, according to local officials.
After the Arema football club lost 3-2 to Persebaya Surabaya, dozens of fans rushed the field at Kanjuruhan Stadium, Arema’s home.
The unrest prompted police to fire tear gas, which caused panic, Inspector General Nico Afinta, the East Java Police chief, said at a news conference. There was confusion about the death toll — the government-backed National Human Rights Commission said 153 people died, while the Arema football club put the number at 182.
Both figures would make Saturday’s match among the deadliest episodes in the history of soccer. In 1964, at least 300 people died in Peru after an unpopular decision by a referee at a soccer game touched off a riot at the country’s national stadium.
In a televised speech to the nation, President Joko Widodo said he had asked the national police chief to do a thorough investigation into what happened. He said he had also ordered the minister of youth and sports, the national police chief and the chairman of Indonesia’s football association to evaluate security at soccer matches.
“I regret that this tragedy occurred,” Joko said. “And I hope this is the last football tragedy in the country.”
Hundreds of people ran to one exit gate in an effort to avoid the tear gas. Some suffocated and others were trampled, killing 34 almost instantly.
“The tear gas was overdone,” said Suci Rahayu, a photographer who was in the stadium. “Many people fainted. If there wasn’t tear gas, there wouldn’t be such a riot.”
In a telephone interview with The New York Times, Suci said many fans were in pain because they were not allowed to bring water into the stadium, which would have helped in washing off the tear gas.
In a statement, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Foundation said “the excessive use of force through the use of tear gas and inappropriate crowd control was the cause of the large number of fatalities.” It said the use of tear gas is prohibited by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body.
“The use of tear gas that was not in accordance with crowd control procedures resulted in supporters in the stands jostling for an exit door, causing them to be short of breath and fainting and colliding with each other,” the group said.
Afinta, the East Java police chief, defended the use of tear gas, saying it was deployed “because there was anarchy.”
“They were about to attack the officers and had damaged the cars,” he said.
Indonesia’s Legal Aid Foundation said the problem was made worse by the overcapacity. Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said that the local football committee had printed 42,000 tickets, more than the stadium’s 38,000 capacity.
He said the victims died “because of the stampede.” They were trampled on and suffocated to death, he said. “There were no victims of beatings or mistreatment of the supporters,” he said.
The medical team carried out rescue efforts in the stadium and then evacuated others to several hospitals, Afinta said at the news conference.
On Twitter, one user uploaded a video that showed fans scaling a fence as they tried to flee the clouds of tear gas.
In the video, people were heard cursing police. The Twitter user tagged Widodo and Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, saying that the firing of the tear gas had caused the deaths.
Another Twitter user uploaded a video that showed soldiers with shields and batons kicking and hitting fans who had rushed onto the field. Authorities then fired tear gas onto the field. The videos could not be immediately verified.
The soccer league suspended play for at least a week.
“We are concerned and deeply regret this incident,” said Akhmad Hadian Lukita, president director of PT Liga Indonesia Baru, known as LIB. “We share our condolences, and hopefully this will be a valuable lesson for all of us.”
Soccer violence has long been a problem for Indonesia. Violent, often deadly rivalries between major teams are common. Some teams even have fan clubs with so-called commanders, who lead large groups of supporters to matches across Indonesia. Flares are often thrown on the field and riot police are a regular presence at many matches.
Since the 1990s, dozens of fans have been killed in soccer-related violence.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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