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Indonesia sets up team to probe soccer stampede; police use of tear gas in focus

Panic-stricken spectators stampeded as they tried to escape the overpacked stadium Saturday after police fired tear gas to disperse rioting fans of the losing side.
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/ Source: Reuters

Indonesia has set up an independent team to investigate a crowd crush at a soccer stadium that killed 125 people, including 32 children, authorities said on Monday, as the country’s human rights commission questioned the police use of tear gas.

Panic-stricken spectators stampeded as they tried to escape the overpacked stadium in Malang, East Java, on Saturday after police fired tear gas to disperse fans from the losing home side who ran onto the pitch at the end of the BRI Liga 1 match in the domestic league.

At least 32 of the victims were children between 3 and 17, Nahar, an official at the women’s empowerment and child protection ministry, told Reuters. The official has earlier put the death toll of children at 17.

“My family and I didn’t think it would turn out like this,” said Endah Wahyuni, the elder sister of two boys, Ahmad Cahyo, 15, and Muhammad Farel, 14, who died after being caught in the melee.

Players and officials of Arema Football Club gather on the field Monday to pray for victims of the stampede at Kanjuruhan stadium in Indonesia on Saturday. Juni Kriswanto / AFP - Getty Images

“They loved soccer, but never watched Arema live at Kanjuruhan stadium, this was their first time,” she added at her brothers’ funeral on Sunday, referring to the home side they backed.

FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, says in its safety regulations that firearms or “crowd control gas” should not be used at matches.

“If there hadn’t been any tear gas maybe there wouldn’t have been chaos,” Choirul Anam, a commissioner at Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, known as Komnas Ham, told a briefing at the stadium.

Tear gas is fired on the field Saturday after a soccer match between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya at Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang, Indonesia. AFP - Getty Images

Police and sport officials have been sent to Malang to investigate what is one of the world’s deadliest stadium disasters. President Joko Widodo ordered the soccer association to suspend all Liga 1 matches until the investigation is completed.

In 1964, 328 people were killed in a crush when Peru hosted Argentina at the Estadio Nacional in Lima.

In a 1989 British disaster, 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death when an overcrowded and fenced-in enclosure collapsed at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD said the government would form an independent fact-finding team, including academics and soccer experts as well as government officials, to probe what happened.

The team will investigate for the next few weeks with the aim of finding out who was responsible for the tragedy, he said.

At least 125 people were killed in one of the deadliest disasters in the history of soccer. Juni Kriswanto / AFP - Getty Images

Violence and hooliganism have long been features of Indonesian soccer, especially in places such as Jakarta, the capital, but the scale of Saturday’s disaster in this town in Java has left the small community numb.

Indonesian daily Koran Tempo ran a black front page on Monday, centered on the words “Our Football Tragedy” printed in red along with a list of the dead.

Home side Arema FC had lost the match 3-2 to Persebaya Surabaya, though authorities had said tickets were not issued to Persebaya fans over security concerns.

Mahfud said on Sunday the stadium had been filled beyond capacity. Some 42,000 tickets had been issued for a stadium designed to hold 38,000 people, he said.

A tearful Arema FC President Gilang Widya Pramana apologized on Monday to the victims of the stampede and said he took full responsibility.

“Lives are more precious than soccer,” he told a news conference.

In an address on Sunday, Pope Francis said he had prayed for those who have lost their lives and for the injured from the disaster.

FIFA, which called incident a “dark day for all involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension,” has asked Indonesian soccer authorities for a report on the incident.