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General News Sun, 13 May 2001

Ghana mourns football victims, Kufuor renews appeal for calm

Ghanaian President John Kufuor Sunday led a sombre mourning ceremony for 126 victims of Africa's worst sports tragedy by urging his people to contain their anger against police, widely blamed for fuelling the deadly football stampede.

Kufuor addressed an inter-faith prayer service, attended by some 8,000 people, at the forecourt of the British-built State House -- the vice-president's office -- by appealing for national calm.

"The enormity of the catastrophe is too much for us mortals to understand and this may have led to the violent incidents in a part of Accra," Kufuor said, referring to anti-police attacks following Wednesday's stampede.

"There has been a general condemnation of the police service but I will ask for maximum restraint to allow some proper procedures to identify those behind this disaster.

"We should also not reject a vital institution of state simply because it has failed on a number of occasions," he said, referring to Ghana's 16,000-strong police force.

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Most people attending the memorial service were dressed in black, or red and brown -- the traditional local mourning colours -- in memory of the dead.

A military band played "Abide with Me" and the "Last Post."

Muslim and Christian clerics read out prayers before an assembled crowd of top government officials, sports stars, diplomats and relatives of the dead and the injured.

Ghana football legend Abedi Pele and former world boxing champion Azumah Nelson were among the mourners.

The ceremony also witnessed the launch of a disaster fund to help the families of the stampede victims.

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Security was extra-tight at the venue after a bomb scare. An army tank was positioned near the State House and sniffer dogs and bomb detectors were used to search for explosives.

Wednesday's stampede occurred after a 2-1 victory by reigning league champions Hearts of Oak over arch-rivals Kumasi Ashanti Kotoko.

Kumasi fans threw seats and bottles on the pitch, causing police to fire large quantities of tear gas into the stands. A stampede followed, trapping spectators inside the locked stadium.

On Thursday and Friday, angry mobs attacked a police station in Accra's Nima quarter and burned tyres and roadside kiosks, forcing the deployment of army soldiers in the area and throughout the seaside capital.

Meanwhile, police have arrested a leading opposition member and former cabinet minister for inciting violence in Nima, a poor, Muslim-dominated area.

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Enoch Mensah was arrested late Saturday, a police source said Sunday.

Mensah, the head of the youth wing of former military ruler Jerry Rawlings' National Democratic Congress (NDC) party, contacted the Joy FM private radio station Sunday to say he had begun a hungerstrike.

"I am a prisoner of conscience," he said, speaking over his cellular phone which had not been confiscated.

The violence in Nima had a political undercurrent with many protestors shouting for the return of "JJ," the popular diminutive for former president Rawlings who ruled Ghana for 19 years until last December.

A three-day period of national mourning, announced in the wake of the tragedy, is to end Sunday.

President Kufuor, in an emotion-filled speech Friday, vowed to punish the guilty and promised there would be "no cover-ups." He has also promised free medical treatment for the victims.

Source: AFP