Defiant Egypt port city buries protesters killed in clashes

Mourners turned out on Friday for the funeral of protesters killed in clashes in Egypt's Port Said, a day before a court is to issue verdicts over the killing of people in a football riot there.

Thousands of protesters followed a casket borne by mourners that held the body of a man killed in clashes on March 4, and a funeral was scheduled later in the day for another protester, shot dead overnight.

On Thursday, protesters again marched on the police headquarters in Port Said, which had been torched in previous incidents, and clashed with officers. In addition to the fatality, 73 people were wounded, medics said.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry said it withdrew its forces and handed the military responsibility for protecting police headquarters in the restive canal city after the Thursday incidents.

And Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim sacked the chief of the Central Security Forces, which includes the riot police, amid strikes by officers and conscripts who complain they are ill-equipped to deal with protesters, state media reported.

Islamist President Mohamed Morsi deployed the military to Port Said after protests erupted there in late January when a court sentenced 21 defendants to death in the case of a 2011 stadium riot that killed 74 people, mostly fans of visiting Cairo side Al-Ahly.

On Saturday the court, again sitting in the capital for security reasons, is due to judge the remaining 52 defendants.

When convicted, defendants are sentenced simultaneously under Egypt's justice system.

The remaining defendants include nine policemen and three officials of the Port Said football club, Al-Masry.

The latest verdicts will coincide with unprecedented protests nationwide by police themselves, including in the canal city of Ismailiya where riot police have said they will refuse to obey orders to deploy in neighbouring Port Said.

The striking policemen say they are not equipped to deal with violent protesters, and complain they are being made to suffer the consequences of government mistakes.

In Port Said, policemen locked themselves up inside their stations, to avoid contact with protesters who want them out of the city.

"We've closed the doors because we don't want to cause any problems with citizens," police Brigadier General Mamduh al-Hirti told AFP. Egyptian police have similar ranks to the military.

The remaining defendants to be judged on Saturday include nine policemen and three officials of the Port Said football club, Al-Masry.

The city is bracing for a repeat of violence there in January that killed dozens of people after the initial verdict.

"What happens on Saturday depends on the verdict," said al-Badry al-Farghali, a former parliamentarian from Port Said. "I believe it's best to delay the verdict, or Egypt will go up in flames, here or elsewhere."

"I'm terrified of what could happen on Saturday," one soldier guarding the police headquarters told AFP.

Morsi's beleaguered government will have to contend with protests in Cairo should the court exonerate the remaining defendants. Al-Ahly fans have threatened to stage violent protests if the verdicts are lenient.

"If there is no justice on March 9, you will wish you could find a way to escape," the group warned police in a message posted on its Facebook page.

Diehard Al-Ahly fans, known as Ultras, held a series of protests over the past week and also attacked the residence of a former interior minister who headed the police at the time of the February 2011 stadium riot.

The official MENA news agency reported on Friday that the interior ministry planned to deploy 2,000 policemen outside Cairo's police academy, where a panel of judges will deliver a verdict in a makeshift courtroom.

More unrest will further imperil the government's plans to push ahead with economic reforms needed to secure a $4.8-billion International Monetary Fund loan.

Sporadic unrest since the Islamist Morsi's election last June has foiled his pledges to revive Egypt's economy, which has nosedived since the early 2011 uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak.