KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan police, swinging rifle butts and firing shots in the air, fought back an unruly crowd Friday trying to push their way into Kabul's main soccer stadium in a melee that marred a goodwill game between peacekeepers and an Afghan team.
The Afghan crowd responded with volleys of stones, bloodying some of the German and Austrian peacekeepers who tried to maintain order. Some in the crowd picked up smoke canisters and hurled them back at the police.
As a pre-game ceremony went on inside the packed stadium, thousands of people outside tried to fight their way through the gates, and police waded into the crowd. Austrian peacekeepers used fire extinguishers and guard dogs to try to keep back the crowds.
Police fired warning shots in the air and beat people with tree branches, strips of rubber, the butts of their rifles and – in at least one case – a grenade launcher.
Fifty Afghans were treated for injuries, mostly to the head, said German medics. Five peacekeepers were also injured when hit by fist-sized rocks thrown at them by the crowd.
None of the injuries was critical, said Capt. Graham Dunlop, the British spokesman for the peacekeeping force. The match went ahead, and the violence started to wane once play began. The peacekeepers won 3-1.
Associated Press photographer Lefteris Pitarakis was on a stadium wall covering the melee and described the bizarre experience of watching a diminishing riot on one side and a soccer game in progress and fans cheering on the other.
"I saw thousands of Afghans pushing against closed doors and climbing to the walls trying to get in," Pitarakis said. "Afghan police were beating the rioters, and the stranded peacekeepers were trying to block the frantic entrance of the huge crowd."
The chaos was an ugly start to a match that symbolized the rehabilitation of Kabul's stadium, which under the former Taliban regime was used for public executions. The hard-line Islamic militia also amputated the hands of criminals in the stadium – often displaying the severed limbs to the crowd. Last year, two suspected bombers were hanged from the goal posts.
With the stadium packed to capacity with 30,000 people, several thousand people were outside pushing toward entrance gates. Men used their Afghan shawls as makeshift ropes to scale the stadium's walls. Some fell.
The Afghan team scored first. The peacekeepers' team – which included British, Italian, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Norwegian and Spanish players – evened the score 1-1 and then scored another two goals in the second half for a 3-1 victory.
The stadium fell into miserable shape under the Taliban, who discouraged sports. For Friday's game, the goalposts had been painted, and fresh boundary lines were drawn on a grass field that was mostly brown due to a severe drought.
"The fact that there is now a football game in a place where there were once executions is proof that the Taliban reign of terror is finally over," said Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserich of the German peacekeeping force. "It's a good idea to have this game now and show people that these times are over."
During the Taliban's rule, athletes were forced to wear beards and pants that reached down below their knees. They were also forbidden to train after 4 p.m., which was prayer time.
"Now we are free players," said Sharif, an Afghan defender who, like many Afghans, uses one name. "I am very happy and I will enjoy this a lot."
The game was organized by the British Ministry of Defense with the backing of the English Football Association and the Premier League. About half of the 3,200-member international force in Kabul is British.