Outnumbered Croatian police officers said they were forced to fire warning shots into the air and ground with live ammunition when football fans returning from a match in the capital Zagreb attacked them on a highway with iron bars, bats and flares.
A total of 20 police officers were among some 35 people injured, including four fans with bullet wounds, authorities said on Sunday.
The violence erupted late on Saturday when a convoy of more than 260 cars and buses, transporting Hajduk Split football club fans, was being escorted by police after the Hajduk team lost 3-1 to archrivals Dinamo Zagreb.
Travelling home after their defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, the Hajduk fans may have been angered because police had earlier barred them from entering Zagreb’s football stadium with flares and banners. About 2,000 fans refused to enter the stadium and remained outside throughout the match, police said.
As the convoy of supporters travelled back to Split, which is about 355km (220 miles) south of Zagreb, a group of fans blocked traffic on the Zagreb to Split highway and started attacking police officers.
“There were no signs something like this could happen,” Damir Baric, a senior police official in charge of public security, said on Sunday.
“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 fans hurled a burning flare inside the vehicle, forcing them to evacuate.
The officers discharged their firearms, shooting about two dozen shots mainly into the air but also into the ground. The bullets apparently ricocheted and wounded some of the attackers, he said.
One fan struck by a bullet was seriously wounded. None of the other injured, including the police officers, were in life-threatening condition, police said.
Police detained 43 people who are facing charges of inciting unrest – a crime that carries prison sentences from six months to five years if they are convicted.
The main Croatian highway leading from Zagreb to the Adriatic Sea 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 by police.
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 a huge banner. It caused a 10-minute delay in the second half.
Dinamo had already clinched the league title before the match, with Hajduk finishing the season in second place.