Brawling battles between British and Italian fans at the European Cup soccer championship erupted into a bloody stampede tonight in which police said 39 persons were killed and at least 250 injured.
Most of the victims were Italians who were trampled to death or who suffocated when a group of British fans charged into a section of the stadium stands occupied by Italian spectators, witnesses said. The Italians piled up against a masonry wall, part of which finally collapsed under the pressure.
"It was terrible. People were lying in the stands, dying before our eyes," one British witness said. Red Cross medics, working amid the shoes and torn clothes littering the area, vainly tried to resuscitate victims pulled from beneath layers of bodies. A priest administered last rites on the parking lot.
The toll was one of the highest in the increasingly violent history of European soccer. Incidents recently in Britain have triggered calls there for restrictions on the games.
At a May 11 match in Bradford, England, in which 53 people were killed, many of the victims were trapped by exit gates locked to keep out nonpaying fans.
Despite the violence at tonight's game between the Italian Juventus team from Turin and the Liverpool club, officials decided to let the match go forward after a delay of little more than a hour.
The European Soccer Federation, which oversees the professional competition, said the decision to proceed was made in consultation with the teams, Belgian soccer authorities, and police officials. "It seemed to them that a premature evacuation of the stadium would have presented an enormous risk that could have aggravated the number of casualties," the federation said.
The Belgian government said it sent condolences to Italian authorities and indicated it blamed the British fans for the trouble. "The shameful violence of the British supporters," a statement said, forced it to "examine very seriously" whether to allow Briitish soccer teams to play here.
In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said those responsible for the rioting "have brought shame and disgrace to their country and to football," The Associated Press reported. West German television broke off its live broadcast to protest the game's proceeding.
A police spokesman said 29 of the victims were Italian, 5 were Belgian and one was French. The nationalities of the other four were not immediately known. Of the 250 injured, 117 remained hospitalized, including 9 in serious condition. Thirteen persons were arrested.
While the officials were considering whether to let the game take place, small groups of fans on the edge of the field lit fires, tore down fences and hurled chunks of the shattered wall and other objects at riot police. The police, swinging their riot sticks, finally chased the groups back into the stands. Other spectators cheered as if they were unaware of the deaths.
"Nearly 40 people have died, but the fans seem to have already forgotten this," a Belgian police official said. The Italian team won, 1-0, provoking wild celebrations in the stadium. There were no immediate reports of further clashes.
Belgian officials had attempted to prevent violence at the game by selling blocks of tickets to the Italian and British fans that would place them in widely separated sections of the Heysel Stadium, which holds 60,000 spectators. Fans who had bought their tickets here in Belgium were placed in sections between the Italians and Britons.
But Brussels Mayor Herve Brouhon said that Italian immigrant workers living in Belgium had bought tickets in a Belgian section adjacent to the British section, and it was these Italians who were in the clash with the Liverpool supporters. Some British fans said they had been provoked by what they said was rowdy behavior and offensive posters of the Italians.
Riot police at first attempted to separate the brawling groups but were forced to retreat.
A Belgian police official said following the violence, "We had taken what we considered to be the proper measures," including the mobilization of 2,000 police officers. The police were divided between those inside the stadium, where they patrolled the edge of the field, and the grounds outside. But they were not posted within the seating area.
Earlier in the day, a British fan was seriously wounded in a knife fight with an Italian. Other fans broke into a jewelry store and took $160,000 in goods, police said.