ZAGREB, Croatia -- Outnumbered Croatian police officers fired warning shots into the air and ground with live ammunition when soccer fans returning from a match in the capital attacked them on a highway with iron bars, bats and flares, authorities said Sunday. At least 35 people were injured, including four fans with bullet wounds.
The violence late Saturday happened when a convoy of more than 260 cars and buses was transporting Hajduk Split fans under police escort after their team lost 3-1 to Dinamo Zagreb. The two teams have a fierce rivalry — Split is Croatia's second-largest city after Zagreb — and Hajduk fans may have been angry because police barred them from entering Zagreb's stadium with flares and banners.
About 2,000 fans refused to enter the stadium and remained outside throughout the match, police said. As they were traveling back to Split, which is about 355 kilometers (220 miles) south of Zagreb, a group of fans blocked traffic and started attacking officers on a section of the highway on the outskirts of the capital, police said.
The road is the main Croatian highway leading from Zagreb to the Adriatic Sea coast. Police said the fans ignored orders to disperse.
“There were no signs something like this could happen,” said Damir Baric, a senior police official in charge of public security. “They blocked traffic, suddenly ran out of their vehicles and advanced on the police who were 10 times outnumbered.”
Zagreb police chief Marko Rasic said that three officers tried to find shelter inside a police van, but that the fans hurled a burning flare inside the vehicle forcing them to evacuate. He said the three police officers discharged their firearms, shooting about two dozen shots mainly into the air but also into the ground. These bullets apparently ricocheted and wounded the attackers, he said.
One fan struck by a bullet was seriously wounded and none of the other injured, including the police officers, were in life-threatening condition, police said.
Police have detained 43 people who are facing charges of inciting unrest that carries prison sentences from six months to five years if they are convicted.
They said that the highway remained closed for much of the night and early morning Sunday. Pictures posted on social media showed what appeared to be flares, and later fans forced to lie on the ground.
Dinamo had already clinched the league title before the match, with Hajduk finishing the season in second place. There were several other incidents reported during and before Saturday's match, including a fire in the stands where Dinamo fans were located after their flares ignited their huge banner. It caused a 10-minute delay in the second half.