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27.01.2013 Egypt

Funerals expected in Egypt's Port Said after deadly clashes

By Christophe de Roquefeuil
Protesters run for cover after throwing stones at riot police in Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 26, 2013.  By Mohammed Abed (AFP)Protesters run for cover after throwing stones at riot police in Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 26, 2013. By Mohammed Abed (AFP)
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CAIRO (AFP) - Funerals are expected to take place on Sunday in Egypt's Port Said for more than 30 people killed in clashes triggered by death sentences on supporters of a local football team.

The burials come after a day of rioting in the canal cities of Port Said and Suez and deadly protests in Cairo against President Mohamed Morsi, highlighting deep political divisions and long-standing tensions between police and protesters.

In Cairo, overnight clashes on the outskirts of Tahrir Square -- the symbolic heart of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011 -- continued into Sunday, with one bridge blocked off and the heavy smell of tear gas hanging in the air.

During the night, demonstrators blocked the 6 October bridge, a vital flyover that links east and west Cairo, and burned cars as police clashed with masked protesters on the Nile corniche.

Trouble erupted on Saturday just minutes after a Cairo court handed down the sentences against fans of Port Said side Al-Masry over the deaths of 74 people during post-match violence last February.

Health ministry spokesman Ahmed Omar said 31 people were killed in the canal city.

Many Egyptians believe last year's deadly stadium riots were orchestrated either by the police or Mubarak supporters and any verdict was likely to trigger a highly charged response.

Cairo football fans had threatened widespread chaos if justice was not served, but Port Said residents said the ruling was politically motivated.

"The government delivered a political ruling that sacrificed our children to avoid chaos," said Ashraf Sayyed, a resident of the canal city.

"Our children are the scapegoats used to restore calm in the rest of the country," Sayyed told AFP.

On Saturday, protesters in Port Said attacked police stations and set tyres alight and relatives of those who were sentenced clashed with security forces as they tried to storm the prison in Port Said where the defendants are being held.

Medics told AFP all the fatalities were from gunfire.

Crowds stormed two police stations as heavy shooting crackled through the city, where shops and businesses had closed, an AFP correspondent said.

Ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals and mosques urged worshippers to donate blood.

The army deployed troops to restore calm and protect vital public buildings, military sources and witnesses said.

Clashes also erupted in the nearby canal city of Suez, where at least eight people were killed in fighting on Friday.

Protesters stormed four police stations, freed 25 detainees and seized weapons, security sources said.

The opposition, meanwhile, threatened to boycott upcoming parliamentary polls if Morsi did not find a "comprehensive solution" to the unrest.

The National Salvation Front, the main coalition of parties and movements opposing the ruling Islamists said it would "not participate" in the polls unless a "national salvation" government was formed.

Egypt's national defence council, which is headed by Morsi, appealed for calm and called for a dialogue with "independent national figures" to agree on a mechanism for the polls.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Saturday expressed "great concern" over the violence, urging the authorities "to restore calm and order" and appealing for restraint on all sides.

Inside and outside the court on Saturday there were explosions of joy at the verdict. Women ululated, relatives hugged each other and shouted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest).

"I am satisfied with the verdict," said a man whose son was killed in the Port Said violence.

Hassan Mustafa, who wore a picture of his dead friend pinned to his chest, said he still wanted "justice served for those who planned the killing."

Egypt's top cleric must ratify Saturday's verdicts, as is customary. The sentences are also subject to appeal. Verdicts will be announced on March 9 for another 52 defendants, including nine police officers.

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