ROME - Clashes between Serbian fans and Italian police that forced the cancellation of a Euro 2012 qualifying match triggered shock and anger on Wednesday, leading Serbia to issue a formal apology to Italy.
Sixteen people were hospitalised due to outbreaks of violence before, during and after the scrapped Italy-Serbia match in Genoa, Italy as some Serbian fans targeted not just Italian fans and police but their own team's goalkeeper.
Police made 17 arrests, Ansa news agency reported, citing officials.
"I have just received a phone call from Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who presented a formal apology from the government," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters.
Jeremic promised "to intensify the search for those responsible and to capture the criminals who will be punished to set an example," he added.
Buses carrying Serbian fans were escorted out of the city by police early Wednesday to avoid clashes with Italian fans while the presumed head of the Serb hooligans, Ivan Bogdanov, was arrested and led away in handcuffs.
European football's governing body UEFA said on Wednesday that it had ordered a thorough disciplinary investigation into the "serious" crowd trouble that forced the match to be abandoned.
Serbia face possible disqualification from the competition over the violence.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said he was afraid for the safety of Italian fans as events unfolded.
Prandelli was a Juventus player during the infamous Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985 in which 39 people died when a wall collapsed as Juventus fans fled Liverpool hooligans who had scaled a fence to try to attack them.
"It was a night of torment. I thought again and again about how the violence of a few can hold a match and a whole city in its grip," said Prandelli.
"When I saw that the Serbian ultras were trying to break through a screen separating them from the Italian fans I was really scared.
"I saw many people with children turning on their heels. When it's like that anything can happen.
"It doesn't take much for it to transform into a night of tragedy."
The violence brought sharp condemnation from both Italy and Serbia.
"The Beast," read a front-page headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport next to a picture of a man thought to be Bogdanov, dressed in a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones and doing a fascist salute.
"We wanted to tell you about a game of football. Instead we have to write about a shameful act. It's painful to say this but he was the hero of the evening. The man in black. The beast," the newspaper said.
Corriere della Sera said: "The English were excluded from European football for five years (following Heysel). It's time that this happens to others."
La Repubblica warned of the rise of ultra-nationalist violence in stadiums in Eastern Europe, including in Hungary, Poland, Russia and Serbia.
"The next European Championship (to be held in Poland and Ukraine) won't be much fun," the newspaper said.
Serbian FA president Tomislav Karadzic said: "It's scandalous."
Serbia has long had serious problems with violent football fans, many of whom are linked to ultra-nationalist organisations. In Belgrade any match between local rivals Partizan and Red Star usually provokes incidents.
In September last year a French supporter of Toulouse who went to Belgrade to see his club play a Europa League match died after being attacked by fans of opposing side Partizan Belgrade. The trial against the 14 suspects is ongoing.
Football hooligans have also been named as participants in Sunday's riots protesting Belgrade's Gay Pride Parade when 6,000 rioters battled with police and caused one million euros (1.4 million dollars) in material damage.
The most seriously injured in the violence early Wednesday was a member of the carabinieri (Italian police), who was rushed to hospital after an explosive device detonated in his face. He suffered first and second degree burns, the police said.
The match was abandoned Tuesday night just six minutes in, after Italy's goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano appeared to be hit by a flare, which Serbian fans were throwing onto the pitch and at Italian supporters.
Italian police then kept Serbian fans hemmed into a gated parking area, intending to release them in small groups to waiting buses.
The clashes started when some of the fans managed to break out and police in riot gear moved to try to get them under control.
Wednesday morning's violence was just the latest incident in a series of clashes that started the previous day.
Ultras had attacked a police car, urinated in the main public square and even attacked their own goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, throwing a flare at him when he was in the team bus outside their hotel.
Thugs also left graffiti inside the Marassi stadium glorifying former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commader Ratko Mladic, both accused of genocide and war crimes against Bosnian Muslims.