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Anger At Police After Soccer Tragedy

Ghana began three days of mourning Friday for the 126 people killed in a stampede, as the nation's grief turned to anger at the police who fired tear gas at unruly spectators in Africa's worst soccer disaster.

Flags flew at half-staff in the usually quiet seaside capital, Accra, where thousands of people waited outside a military hospital morgue to collect the dead.

Health officials said 81 of the 126 people killed Wednesday at a game between two of the country's leading soccer teams had been identified and would be returned to families for private funerals.

Grieving relatives dressed in black collected bodies off the morgue's blood-spattered floor, wrapped them in white cloth and placed them in wooden coffins.

Thousands later converged on the Central Mosque, where 20 coffins were lined up in front of rows of people bowing down in prayer. Singing and wailing, relatives then brought their dead to a cemetery on the western side of town, where the bodies were lifted from their coffins and placed in graves.

President John Kufuor was expected to address Muslim mourners later at the mosque.

Private funerals were being held across the city, and a multi-denominational memorial service was planned for Sunday.

Survivors say the disaster began when police fired tear gas at fans who were throwing bottles and chairs on the field at Accra Stadium, capacity 45,000. Home team Accra Hearts of Oak was leading Asante Kotoko of Kumasi 2-1 with five minutes left . A panicked crowd stampeded to the main gates — only to find them locked.

Many Ghanaians believe police overreacted.

"We are really angry," said Ishmael Bance, a member of the Hearts of Oak fan club, which was collecting six bodies from the morgue Friday. "The police should have stopped firing tear gas after two canisters. That was enough."

Bance survived the crush by covering his face against the tear gas and running in the opposite direction from the crowds, away from the exits.

"Stadium officials were also to blame," added the fan club's general secretary, Abdoulaye Babaray. "The exits were blocked. They are usually open 10 minutes to the end of a match."

Many people who called radio talk shows or appeared on television panels agreed with them.

Shock and grief turned into anger as mourners mobbed a policeman at the Central Mosque, shouting: "We don't want to see police here. They killed our brothers." Muslim elders shielded the man from the crowd and escorted him to safety.

Youths returning from another funeral stoned a police station in the low-income Nima neighborhood, where a police officer had been beaten on Thursday, radio reported.

Stone-throwing youths also attacked a police station in Kotobaabi, another impoverished neighborhood, on Thursday, radio said. Police fired a warning shot to disperse the crowd.

"We will have to accept the blame for what has happened," government deputy spokesman Kwabena Agyepong sai, as he coordinated relief efforts for the survivors at the military hospital. "I don't think our police are equipped to organize stadium (security). We need to retrain our police to handle functions in places like stadiums."

Police have launched an internal probe into the disaster, in addition to a five-member government commission set up to investigate the cause of the tragedy and recommend how to prevent another.

In an address to the nation Thursday night, Kufuor said six police in charge of security at the stadium had been suspended.

"I would like to assure my fellow Ghanaians that anyone found guilty by the commission of any willful excess will face the full rigors of the law," Kufuor said in the televised address.

"(But) this is not the time to apportion blame or seek scapegoats ... The eyes of the world are upon us. Let us show the world that we are a dignified and peace-loving people. Let us all be united and support each other in this moment of national grief," he added.

Kufuor said the government would pay the medical expenses of survivors.

The stampede marks the fourth soccer disaster to strike Africa in the past four weeks. On April 11, 43 people were killed at a stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. Another stampede in Lubumbashi, Congo, on April 29 left eight people dead. And on May 6, fighting broke out among fans at a soccer match in Ivory Coast, killing one person and injuring 39.

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