At least 125 dead after stampede at Indonesian football match

Harry Fawcett reports on what's become one of the 'deadliest sporting disasters in history'

Panic at an Indonesian football match has left at least 125 dead, most of whom were trampled to death in one of the deadliest sports events in the world.

Riots broke out after the game ended on Saturday evening with host Arema FC of East Java’s Malang city losing to Persebaya of Surabaya 3-2.

Attention immediately focused on the police use of tear gas, which is banned at football stadiums by FIFA, whose president described the deaths as “a dark day for all involved" and a "tragedy beyond comprehension.”

Disappointed after their team’s loss, thousands of supporters of Arema, known as “Aremania,” reportedly reacted by throwing bottles and other objects at players and officials.

Witnesses said fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch in protest and demanded that Arema management explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home games, this match ended in a loss.

The rioting spread outside the stadium, where at least five police vehicles were toppled and set on fire amid the chaos. Inside the stadium, it’s reported the number of spectators exceeded capacity by around 4,000 - an investigation is underway.

Supporters rushed onto the pitch as police try to chase away the crowd and use tear gas

Riot police responded by firing tear gas – which is banned in stadiums by FIFA – that appeared to stir panic among the crowd as fans rushed to the exits, causing a deadly crush.

Some suffocated and others were trampled as hundreds of people ran to the exit in an effort to avoid the tear gas.

In the chaos, 34 died at the stadium, including two officers, and some reports include children among the casualties. An earlier death toll of 174 was lowered, with authorities claiming some victims were counted twice.

East Java’s vice governor Emil Dardak told Kompas TV more than 100 injured people are receiving intensive treatment in eight hospitals without any charge, 11 of them in critical condition.

“We have already done a preventive action before finally firing the tear gas as (fans) began to attack the police, acting anarchically and burning vehicles,” said East Java Police chief Nico Afinta on Sunday.

More than 300 were rushed to nearby hospitals to treat injuries but many died on the way and during a treatment, Mr Afinta said.

He said the death toll is likely to increase because the condition of many of the injured receiving treatment was deteriorating.

Officers examine a damaged police vehicle following the clash. Credit: AP

Indonesia’s football association, known as PSSI, has suspended the premier soccer league Liga 1 indefinitely in light of the tragedy and banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the remainder of the season.

Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali expressed his condolence to the victims and their families, saying he regretted that “this tragedy happened when we were preparing for soccer game activities, both national and international level.”

Indonesia is due to host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup from May 20 to June 11, with 24 participating teams. As the host, the country automatically qualifies for the cup.

“Unfortunately, this incident has certainly injured our soccer image,” Amali said.

Ferli Hidayat, local police chief of Malang, said there were some 42,000 spectators at the game on Saturday, all of whom were Aremanias because the organiser had banned Persebaya fans from entering the stadium in an effort to avoid brawls.

Security officers detain a fan during the clash. Credit: AP

Was tear gas to blame?

Rights groups responded to the tragedy by blaming the use of tear gas in the stadium by police.

Citing FIFA’s stadium safety guidelines that prohibit the carrying or use of “crowd control gas” by pitch side stewards or police, Amnesty International called on Indonesian authorities to conduct a swift, thorough and independent investigation into the use of tear gas at Kanjuruhan stadium.

“Those who are found to have committed violations are tried in open court and do not merely receive internal or administrative sanctions,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

He said tear gas should only be used to disperse crowds when widespread violence has occurred and when other methods have failed. People must be warned that tear gas will be used and allowed to disperse.

“No one should lose their lives at a football match,” Hamid said.

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