DEATH TOLL rises to 121 in Ghana soccer stampede

Thursday, May 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ACCRA, Ghana (AP) _ Distraught relatives searched hospital wards and lined up in front of a morgue Thursday, hoping to find loved ones as the death toll from a stampede at a packed soccer game between two of Ghana's leading teams rose to 121.

Wednesday's stampede was the fourth _ and deadliest _ soccer tragedy to hit an African country since early April. It was also the latest challenge facing the fledgling government of President John Kufuor.

Police sealed off Accra Stadium, the city's main playing field, where a few unclaimed cars stood in the parking lot. The stairs leading to the stands were stained with blood.

Hometown team Accra Hearts of Oak was leading 2-1 against Asante Kotoko with five minutes left when Asante supporters began throwing bottles and chairs onto the field Wednesday, witnesses said.

Police responded by firing tear gas, creating panic in the stands as spectators rushed to escape the gas, they said.

Government spokesman Kwabena Agyapong said 121 people died in the crush _ the West African country's worst ever soccer disaster.

Most of the victims were crushed to death, said Brig. Daniel Twum, director of medical services at the military hospital which received most of the dead and injured. The hospital admitted 53 wounded.

The hallways of the hospital were crowded Wednesday night with bleeding, injured people, along with relatives frantically searching for loved ones. Hospital officials refused to allow an Associated Press reporter to speak to any of the survivors.

Relatives who failed to find their missing, lined up in front of the hospital morgue Thursday morning, waiting to be allowed to identify the dead. Hospital officials said they would be allowed in after autopsies had been conducted.

``My three brothers traveled from Kumasi to Accra to watch the match,'' said Mary Sarah, whose voice shook with grief and anger after a night spent waiting in front of the morgue.

``After the news of the incident, I called the Kumasi home, but the phone rang and rang and rang ... They are my everything.''

Hearts of Oak captain Jacob Nettey apologized to the nation and expressed condolences to the victims' families.

``I am shocked and terrified at the heavy casualty toll from what simply started as unruly behavior from a handful of people,'' Nettey said.

He blamed police, who he said overreacted to the situation.

Police launched an internal probe into the incident Thursday, in addition to a government investigation announced Wednesday night.

``I can assure you that no officer will be shielded if found guilty of unprofessionalism,'' police Inspector General Ernest Owusu Poku said.

President John Kufuor canceled his engagements Thursday and summoned Cabinet for an emergency session.

The government was also setting up a committee of religious leaders to counsel and console the bereaved families.

``We must share in their grief because this is the best we can do for them at the moment,'' Agyapong said.

This was the fourth soccer disaster in Africa during the past month. Forty-three people were killed April 11 at a stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Another stampede April 29 killed eight people in Lubumbashi, Congo. And on May 6, fighting broke out among fans at a soccer match in Ivory Coast, killing one person and injuring 39.