At least 125 people have died in a stampede after tear gas fired by police sparked panic among fans rioting after a soccer match in Indonesia in one of the worst sporting tragedies in the world.
Attention immediately focused on the police use of tear gas, which is banned at soccer stadiums by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, which called the incident "a tragedy beyond comprehension."
Some people suffocated and others were trampled in the crush as fans rushed to the exits following violence after the game Saturday evening at a stadium in the city of Malang, in East Java province.
Hosts Arema FC lost to visiting side Persebaya FC 3-2, with thousands of angry supporters throwing bottles and other objects at players and soccer officials. Witnesses said fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium field and demanded that Arema management explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home matches against rival Persebaya, this one ended in a loss.
Riot police responded by firing tear gas, some of it toward the stadium’s stands, causing panic among the crowds of fans.
At least 34 people died at the stadium, including two officers, officials said; some reports included children among the casualties.
“I deeply regret this tragedy, and I hope this is the last soccer tragedy in this country," Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in a televised speech Sunday.
Widodo ordered an investigation of security procedures.
East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta said at a news conference early Sunday, “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.”
More than 300 people were rushed to hospitals, but many died on the way and during treatment, Afinta said.
National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said the death toll had been revised down to 125 after authorities found that some of the victims were counted twice. More than 100 were receiving intensive treatment in eight hospitals, 11 of them in critical condition.
Television reports showed police and rescuers evacuating the injured and carrying the dead to ambulances.
Grieving relatives waited for information about their loved ones at Malang’s Saiful Anwar General Hospital. Others tried to identify the bodies at a morgue.
Rights groups blamed the use of tear gas in the stadium by police.
Citing FIFA’s stadium safety guidelines against the use of “crowd control gas” by 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, the executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
He said tear gas should be used only 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.
Hundreds of soccer fans, most of them wearing black shirts, held a candlelight vigil Sunday night at Gelora Bung Karno, Indonesia’s largest sport stadium, in the capital, Jakarta. They sang songs they composed to lift the spirits of the grieving Aremanias.
In a statement, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expressed condolences on behalf of the global soccer community, saying, “The football world is in a state of shock.” The statement did not mention the use of tear gas.
Indonesia’s soccer association, known as PSSI, has suspended the premier soccer league, Liga 1, indefinitely and banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the rest of the season.
Indonesia is due to host the 2023 FIFA Under 20 World Cup, with 24 participating teams. As the host, it automatically qualifies for the tournament.
“Unfortunately, this incident has certainly injured our soccer image,” Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali said.
Hooliganism is rife in the soccer-obsessed country, where fanaticism often ends in violence, as in the death in 2018 of a Persija Jakarta supporter who was killed by a mob of hard-core fans of rival club Persib Bandung.
Ferli Hidayat, the police chief of Malang, said 42,000 spectators were at the game Saturday, all of whom were Arema supporters, because the organizer had banned Persebaya fans from entering the stadium to avoid brawls.
Saturday’s game is already among the world’s worst crowd disasters, including the 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City, where over 80 people died and over 100 more were injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people were crushed to death during a soccer match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.