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Fans Blame Police After More Than 100 Die at Indonesian Soccer Match

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MALANG, Indonesia — It was supposed to be a joyous occasion for fans of Arema F.C., the most beloved soccer team in the city of Malang, Indonesia.

Tens of thousands of young people — who call themselves “Aremania” — had packed the Kanjuruhan Stadium on Saturday night, hoping to watch their team beat Persebaya Surabaya, a club it had defeated for 23 years running.

But Arema lost, 3-2, and angry fans began rushing the field. What unfolded next became one of the deadliest sports stadium disasters in history: Police officers began shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd and beating fans with batons, witnesses said, and in a rush to flee the stadium fans piled up against narrow exits, crushing each other. At least 125 people were reported dead as of Sunday night.

“I’m still thinking: ‘Did all this really happen?’” said Felix Mustikasakti Afoan Tumbaz, a 23-year-old fan whose right leg was injured when a tear-gas canister landed on him. “How could such a tragedy occur and kill so many people?”

The disaster has focused attention on the use of tear gas by the local police in such a tightly packed stadium. On Twitter, one of the top trending topics in Indonesia was “National Police Chief,” with many Indonesians calling for his removal. A spokesman for the national police said that in addition to the huge death toll, there were reports that at least 300 people had been injured.

Violent, often deadly rivalries between major teams are common in Indonesia. Some teams even have fan clubs with so-called commanders, who lead large groups of supporters. Flares are often thrown onto the field, and riot police are a regular presence at many matches. Since the 1990s, dozens of fans have been killed in soccer-related violence.

But Indonesia has never before seen a sports stadium disaster on this scale. Saturday’s tragedy appeared to be a perfect storm of everything that could go wrong at a soccer match.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has asked the police chief for a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident. In a televised speech to the nation, he said he had also ordered the minister of youth and sports and the chairman of Indonesia’s football association to evaluate security at soccer matches.

“I regret that this tragedy occurred,” Mr. Joko said. “And I hope this is the last football tragedy in the country.”

The police defended their use of tear gas, which they said was necessary to subdue aggrieved fans. East Java’s police chief, Inspector General Nico Afinta, said the gas was deployed “because there was anarchy.” He said the fans “were about to attack the officers and had damaged the cars.”

But witnesses dispute Mr. Afinta’s account, saying that police officers fired tear gas indiscriminately into the stands, causing a stampede and many people to suffocate. Videos circulating on Twitter showed fans scaling a fence as they tried to flee the clouds of tear gas. Other videos showed security forces with shields and batons kicking and hitting fans who had rushed onto the field.

The stadium was over capacity. Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said that the local football committee had printed 42,000 tickets, more than the stadium’s 38,000 seats. Mr. Afinto, the East Java police chief, said there were 40,000 people inside the stadium.

The police came armed with tear gas, even though its use at games is prohibited by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. Owen West, a senior lecturer on policing at the Edge Hill University in Britain, said the use of crowd control munitions and full riot gear “becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy” because officers’ “tactical assumptions are all initiated around a sense of losing control.”

“It is incredibly, incredibly dangerous to use a dispersal tactic such as tear gas in this case,” said Mr. West. “I’m guessing it was used without any thought of where thousands of people might go to.”

One fan, Joshua Nade, said that after the match ended, two or three angry fans came down from the stands and were seen shouting at the players. Police officers entered to turn the fans back, drawing more people onto the field. Some scuffling between the police and fans prompted officers to fire the first bursts of tear gas around 10:30 p.m. local time.

Then at 11 p.m., the security forces suddenly started firing tear gas at a steady clip into the stands, said Mr. Joshua, who like many Javanese does not use a family name. That prompted hundreds of people to rush to the exits. Officers continued firing tear gas for an hour, according to Mr. Joshua.

Outside the stadium, hundreds of angry fans clashed with the police. Some of the exits were sealed off, ostensibly to keep fans from flooding the stadium. But that trapped thousands of people inside.

To get out, Mr. Joshua said, some people had to scale fences more than 15 feet high, clambering over other panicked spectators. Mr. Joshua said the police stood by and did nothing to help the hundreds of people who had fainted from the tear gas.

In a statement, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Foundation said “the excessive use of force through the use of tear gas and inappropriate crowd control was the cause of the large number of fatalities.”

“If there wasn’t tear gas, there wouldn’t be such a riot,” said Suci Rahayu, a photographer who was in the stadium.

Soccer violence has long been a problem for Indonesia, and police officers are usually on guard to contend with unruly fans. The last time tear gas was used in a deadly way by the police during a soccer match was also during an Arema F.C. game in 2018. One person died and 214 people were injured.

Saturday’s death toll put it among the worst sports casualty counts in history, including a riot in Peru in 1964 that left more than 300 dead, and in Hillsborough, England, in which an F.A. Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in Sheffield resulted in the deaths of 97 soccer fans.

Mr. Tumbaz said around 11.45 p.m., a tear-gas canister landed on his right leg, burning his calf and foot. He showed photographs of his injuries to The New York Times.

When the firing stopped, he said he helped medical workers carry to the exits more than 10 people who had fainted. He checked to see if they were still alive, and their heartbeats were faint but still present. Then he went to look for his friends in the parking lot.

When he returned, the bodies of the unconscious people had turned dark.

“I still remember all their faces,” ” said Mr. Tumbaz. “I hear them asking for help in my head.”

In Malang on Sunday night, hundreds of Arema fans held a vigil for the dead. They wore black at Stadium Gajayana, where Arema won its first title. Many of them sang hymns to remember those who had died.

The survivors say they are still traumatized.

Bambang Siswanto, the father of 19-year-old Gilang Putra Yuliazah, said his son and his nephew had gone to the game with three other boys. His 17-year-old nephew did not made it out alive and his son, he said, is already struggling with survivor’s guilt.

“He totally went into shock,” said Mr. Bambang, speaking at a hospital in Malang, where his son was admitted. “He looked OK when I found him, but as soon as he saw his cousin’s body, that’s when it hit him. He went blank. You talk to him and there’s no response.”

Gilang’s mother, Etri, who goes by one name, said she had told her son not to go to the match. But her son is a die-hard Arema fan and has loved soccer since he was little.

“I will never let him watch a soccer match anymore,” Etri said. “I am terrified.”

Mr. Bambang echoed his wife’s sentiments. “Yes, we won’t allow him to go to a soccer match,” he said. “Too cruel. The police are too cruel.”

Muktita Suhartono reported from Malang, Sui-Lee Wee from Bangkok and Dera Menra Sijabat from Jakarta. Austin Ramzy, Rory Smith and Jin Yu Young contributed reporting.

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