JAKARTA: At least 32 children died in Indonesia’s stadium disaster, an official said Monday, as the government ordered police to identify the “perpetrators” of one of the deadliest disasters in football history.
The tragedy on Saturday night in the city of Malang saw a total of 125 people killed and 323 others injured after officers fired tear gas in a packed stadium to quell a pitch invasion, triggering a stampede.
Dozens of children caught in the chaos lost their lives, an official at the women’s empowerment and child protection ministry told AFP on Monday.
“From the latest data we received, out of 125 people who died in the accident, 32 of them were children, with the youngest being a toddler age three or four,” said Nahar, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name.
As anger mounted against police, Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD announced that a task force had been formed for an investigation.
“We ask the national police to find the perpetrators who have committed crimes in the next few days,” he said in a broadcast statement.
“We asked them to... take action against them and we also hope the national police will evaluate their security procedures.”
The tragedy unfolded when fans of home team Arema FC stormed the pitch at the Kanjuruhan stadium after their loss 3-2 to bitter rivals Persebaya Surabaya.
Police responded by launching tear gas into packed terraces, prompting spectators to rush en masse to small gates where many were trampled or suffocated, according to witnesses.
“It felt like people were packed into a small tube with a tiny hole, and then they were smoked,” said 29-year-old spectator Ahmad Rizal Habibi, who escaped before the crush.
Police described the incident as a riot and said two officers were killed, but survivors accuse them of overreacting and causing the deaths of scores of spectators.
“One of our messages is for the authorities to investigate this thoroughly. And we want accountability. Who is to blame?” said 25-year-old Malang resident Andika, who declined to give his last name.
“We want justice for our fallen supporters.”
Investigators planned to question football officials on Monday as well as the 18 officers responsible for being “the carrier or the operator of the weapons,” national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo told a press conference.
In a tearful live address, Arema FC president Gilang Widya Pramana apologized for the club’s role in the tragedy.
“I, as the president of Arema FC, will take full responsibility for the incident that occurred. I deeply apologize to the victims, their families, all Indonesians, and Liga 1.”
The squad visited the site of the tragedy on Monday donned in black shirts to pay their respects and lay flowers before gathering on the pitch to pray for victims.
Newspaper Kompas published a black front page with the word “tragedy” and a stadium bearing the names of victims.
Outside the Kanjuruhan venue on Sunday evening, people held a vigil to honor the victims beneath a roaring lion statue that is the club’s symbol.
Graffiti daubed on the walls revealed bubbling anger toward authorities.
“My siblings were killed. Investigate thoroughly,” read one message scrawled on the stadium’s shutters, accompanied by a black ribbon and the date of the disaster.
“ACAB,” an acronym for “all cops are bastards,” was sprayed on another wall.
In Jakarta, hundreds of football fans gathered outside the country’s biggest stadium on Sunday chanting “murderer, murderer.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a probe, but rights groups said officers should be held accountable for using tear gas in a confined area.
Mahfud said the task force for the investigation would consist of government officials, analysts, ministry representatives, football officials, academics and members of the media.
“It is estimated the task can be concluded in the next two or three weeks,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said it was not enough for the police and Indonesia’s football association to conduct their own probe as “they may be tempted to downplay or undermine full accountability for officials.”
Fan violence is an enduring problem in Indonesia.
Witnesses of Saturday’s episode say supporters of the home team invaded the pitch after their loss to Persebaya Surabaya.
Persebaya Surabaya fans were barred from the game, due to the fear of violence.
Mahfud said 42,000 tickets had been allocated for 38,000 seats.
After the stampede, Arema fans threw rocks at officers and torched vehicles including a police truck on the streets of Malang, according to police.
FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino called the tragedy a “dark day” for football.
The world governing body’s safety guidelines prohibit the use of crowd control gas by police or stewards at pitchside.