LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday he was "profoundly sorry" for failures and cover-ups in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster in which 96 spectators died after a crowd crush in the stadium.
Attempts by the police to defect the blame for Britain's worst sporting disaster onto Liverpool fans to cover up their own flawed response and the dangers of an outdated stadium amounted to a "double injustice", he said.
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 football and ushered in a new era of modern, all-seated venues.
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 Conservative Party leader spoke after the release of an independent panel's investigation into the deaths that 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.
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."
Three relatives of the victims fainted when they heard that the panel put forward evidence of a cover-up, apparently vindicating their 23-year campaign to find "Justice for the 96".
"There were two disasters at Hillsborough - one on the day and one afterwards," said Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters in the disaster. "There was a contrived, manipulated, vengeful and spiteful attempt to divert the blame."
The independent panel, set up in 2010 by the last Labour government to examine all the public paperwork relating to the tragedy, concluded that it could have been avoided, more lives could have been saved and the police response was flawed.
"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," it said.
Senior police edited their officers' witness statements from the day to paint them in a less damaging light, the report said. South Yorkshire Police removed negative comments from 116 out of 164 police statements.
Barrister Michael Mansfield, who helped the victims' families, said he believed the police's behaviour was part of the biggest cover-up in British legal history and the report could lead to prosecutions within months.
"The system failed miserably," Mansfield said in a news conference at Liverpool's imposing Church of England cathedral.
Former Labour justice secretary Charles Falconer said the report showed a "concerted conspiracy to withhold the truth by public bodies", while Liverpool Football Club chairman Tom Werner said "the world has heard the real truth about what happened".
South Yorkshire Police said "grave errors had been made".
"I am shocked by it and so are my senior people. If people are shown to have acted criminally, then they should face prosecution," Chief Constable David Crompton told the BBC.
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.
The disaster is still an open wound in Liverpool, the port city of nearly half a million people that is passionate about football and has fielded great 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 then 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. On Wednesday, Kelvin Mackenzie, the editor who published those false allegations, issued an apology.
Relatives rejected his comments as "too little, too late" and began a news conference by asking any journalists from the Sun to leave the room.