An Egyptian court confirmed on Saturday death sentences handed down to 21 soccer fans for their role in a stadium riot which killed dozens of people in Port Said last year, a case which has provoked violent protests in the Suez Canal city.

The court also jailed two senior police officers for 15 years for their role in the riot in February 2012, in which more than 70 people died.

Seven of nine police officials on trial were acquitted for their role in the disaster.

Unrest has plagued Port Said since the death sentences were first announced on January 26, with local residents who want the fans spared fighting pitched battles with police. At least eight people have been killed this week, including three policemen.

The case has highlighted worsening law and order in much of Egypt since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

The Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi is struggling to halt the slide in security, hampered by a strike by some police in protests that are likely to be fuelled by Saturday's jail sentences for the senior officers.

Listing the names of the 21 fans, the judge said the Cairo court had confirmed "the death penalty by hanging". In a ruling on live TV, the court also sentenced five more people to life in jail for the riot and acquitted 28. Others out of a total of 73 defendants received shorter jail sentences.

Central Port Said was quiet following the court ruling, with the army maintaining security after the government pulled out police, who have been hated by many Egyptians since the Mubarak era, to ease tensions.

The stadium riot erupted at the end of a match between Cairo's Al-Ahly team and Al-Masry, the local side.

Spectators were crushed when panicked crowds tried to escape from the stadium after a pitch invasion by supporters of Al-Masry. Others fell or were thrown from terraces.

Many fans of the Cairo side were happy with the ruling on Saturday confirming the death sentences. "This is a just verdict and has calmed us all down. Our martyrs have been vindicated," Said Sayyid, 21, told Reuters.

Before the fires broke out, thousands of Al-Ahly fans had gathered outside the club's headquarters in Cairo. They appeared divided on whether to welcome the verdicts or consider them flawed.

"We came for the rulings on the defendants from the police," said one fan who refused to give his name. "Why should I be happy when most of them were acquitted?"

Fans respond

Shortly after the verdict was announced, suspected fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly club who had gathered in the thousands outside the team's headquarters in central Cairo went on a rampage, torching a police club nearby and storming Egypt's soccer federation headquarters before setting it ablaze. The twin fires sent plumes of thick black smoke billowing out over the Cairo skyline.

In Port Said, a city that for weeks has been in open rebellion against the Islamist president, several hundred people, many of them relatives of the defendants, gathered outside the local government offices to vent their anger. They chanted slogans against Morsi's government and the verdicts.

"There's still an appeal process. God willing, our rights will be restored," said Islam Ezzeddin, a local soccer fan. "We are not thugs. I hope to God when there's an appeal that we feel we live in a country of law and justice."