By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday he was "profoundly sorry" for failures and cover-ups in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough soccer disaster in which 96 spectators died after a crowd crush in the stadium.
He was speaking as an independent report found that police at the time had scrambled to deflect the blame for Britain's worst sporting disaster onto Liverpool soccer fans to cover up their own flawed response.
The victims died in an overcrowded fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, northern England, a tragedy that changed the face of English soccer and ushered in a new era of modern, all-seated stadiums.
Britain was shocked by harrowing images of young fans crushed against metal fences, bodies lying on the pitch and spectators using wooden advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers on a warm Spring afternoon.
The report, issued after a two-year investigation into the deaths, said police had sought to blame the Liverpool fans, portraying them as aggressive, drunk and ticketless and bent on packing into the already crowded stadium.
"The tragedy should never have happened," the report's authors said in a statement. "There were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and in its aftermath there were strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto the fans."
Senior police edited their officers' witness statements from the day to paint them in a less damaging light, the report said. Their emergency response was flawed and badly organized.
While inquiries found hooliganism played no part in the disaster, the police crowd management plan was preoccupied with preventing disorder, the report said.
Liverpool fans had been tainted by the Heysel stadium disaster in Belgium in 1985. Fighting inside that stadium led to Juventus fans being crushed against a wall that collapsed. Six Liverpool fans and 33 supporters of the Italian team died.
The real danger at Hillsborough lay in the emergency services' poor planning and a stadium that failed to meet minimum safety standards, the report said.
Its capacity was overstated and previous crushes at Hillsborough had been ignored.
Speaking in parliament, Cameron called the disaster "one of the greatest peacetime tragedies of the last century" and acknowledged that the report would be harrowing for relatives of the deceased.
"It was wrong that the families have had to wait for so long - and fight so hard - just to get to the truth," he said. "And it was wrong that the police changed the records of what happened and tried to blame the fans."
"On behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long."
The disaster is still an open wound in Liverpool, the port city of nearly half a million people that is passionate about soccer and has fielded players like Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard.
All the victims during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held at the neutral ground of Sheffield Wednesday, were Liverpool supporters.
The press secretary of the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher incensed families by blaming the disaster on a "tanked-up mob".
The report found no reason for the coroner's decision to take blood alcohol samples from all of the victims, including children.
"The pattern of alcohol consumption among those who died was unremarkable," the report said. "The weight placed on alcohol levels was... inappropriate and misleading."
The disaster was also one of the low points for Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper group, currently reeling from a phone hacking scandal that has led to criminal charges against former senior executives and reporters.
Many in Liverpool still boycott Murdoch's newspapers after the top-selling Sun accused their fans of stealing from the dying, urinating on policemen and beating up an officer giving the kiss of life. The newspaper's executives have since apologized for the story.
The youngest victim, 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was the cousin of the current England and Liverpool captain Gerrard.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend James Jones, was set up by the last government in 2010 to oversee the release of thousands of previously unseen documents related to the incident.
(Reporting by Stephen Addison; Editing by Ken Ferris)