CAIRO, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Seventy-three people were killed and at least 1,000 injured on Wednesday after a soccer pitch invasion in the Egyptian city of Port Said, in what a deputy minister called the biggest disaster in the nation's soccer history.
Violence at football matches across north Africa has increased significantly since political unrest began sweeping the region more than a year ago, and one player described Wednesday's riot as "a war, not football".
Angry politicians and sports officials decried a lack of security at the match between Port Said team al-Masry and Al Ahli, one of Egypt's most successful clubs, and blamed the nation's leaders for allowing - or even causing - the tragedy.
Wednesday's trouble flared at the end of a match when al-Masry beat Al Ahli 3-1.
"This is unfortunate and deeply saddening. It is the biggest disaster in Egypt's soccer history," Deputy Health Minister Hesham Sheiha told state television.
Witnesses said trouble broke out when Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said and an Ahli supporter descended onto the pitch carrying an iron bar. Al-Masry fans reacted by pouring onto the pitch and attacking Ahli players. They then turned to the terraces to attack Ahli supporters.
Most of the deaths were among people who were trampled in the crush of the panicking crowd or who fell from terraces, witnesses said.
Live television coverage showed fans running onto the field and chasing Ahli players. A small group of riot police formed a corridor to try to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were still able to kick and punch the players as they fled.
HELICOPTERS TRANSFER INJURED
"This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances," Ahli player Mohamed Abo Treika told his club's television channel.
"I call for the premier league to be cancelled. This is horrible situation and today can never be forgotten."
State television reported that Egypt's football federation had indefinitely suspended premier league matches.
Egypt's Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the country's ruling military council, ordered two helicopters be sent to Port Said, the scene of violent soccer clashes, to fly out some of the visiting Al Ahli soccer team and its fans, military sources said.
The helicopters would transfer the injured to military hospitals, the sources said.
Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, accused officials and security forces of allowing the disaster, saying they still had ties to the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown a year ago.
"The security forces did this or allowed it to happen. The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions," he screamed in a telephone call to live television.
"Where is the security? Where is the government?"
A number of policemen were among the dead, a medical source and witnesses said.
Hospitals throughout the Suez Canal zone were put on a state of emergency, and dozens of ambulances rushed to Port Said from the Canal cities of Ismailia and Suez, said an official in the zone's local ambulance service.
Another match in Cairo was halted by the referee after receiving news of the violence in Port Said, prompting fans to set parts of the stadium on fire, television footage showed. (Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti, Yasmine Saleh, Shaimaa Fayed and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Yousri Mohamed in Ismailia; writing by David Stamp; Editing by Jon Boyle)