At least 85 people were killed and over 300 injured in a crush at a charity distribution event in war-torn Yemen on Thursday, Huthi officials said, one of the deadliest stampedes in a decade.
The latest tragedy to strike the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country came days ahead of Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday celebrated around the world by feasting to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Hundreds of people in the poverty-hit country had gathered at a school in the capital Sanaa to receive cash handouts of 5,000 Yemeni Rials (around $8).
At least “85 were killed and more than 322 were injured” in the stampede in the Bab al-Yemen district of the capital, a Huthi security official said, adding that around 50 were in a serious condition.
“Women and children were among the dead,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorised to speak to the media. A second health official confirmed the toll.
The Huthi-run interior ministry said the dead and injured have been relocated to hospitals, and those responsible for the event arrested.
Video broadcast by Al Masirah TV channel showed a cluster of bodies packed together, with people climbing on top of each other to try to make their way through.
Many had their mouths covered by other people’s hands, the rest of their bodies engulfed by the dense crowd.
Armed men in military dress and distribution workers screamed at the crowd to turn back as they tried to pull people out of the crush.
According to the head of the Huthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohamed Ali al-Huthi, “overcrowding” caused the stampede.
People were packed in a narrow street leading to the school’s back entrance, he said.
Once the gates opened, the crowd streamed into a tight staircase leading to the courtyard where the distribution was taking place.
Eyewitnesses, however, said that gunfire caused people to rush in a panic.
After the stampede, families converged on hospitals but many were not allowed to enter as top officials were also visiting the dead and wounded.
An AFP correspondent in Sanaa saw large crowds outside one hospital entrance.
At the school, heavily deployed security forces were seen blocking relatives from entering the facility to locate family members.
Footage on Al Masirah TV showed corpses strewn across the complex, which was littered with sandals and scraps of clothes after the stampede was cleared.
The Huthi rebel’s political chief Mahdi al-Mashat said a committee had been formed to investigate.
A Huthi security official said three people had been detained on suspicion of involvement.
More than eight years of civil war in Yemen has unleashed what the United Nations describes as one of the world’s worst humanitarian tragedies.
The conflict began in 2014 when Iran-backed Huthi rebels seized Sanaa, prompting a Saudi-led coalition to intervene the following year to prop up the internationally recognised government.
Hundreds of thousands have died in the war. Fighting has eased dramatically since the six-month, UN-brokered truce last year, even after it expired in October.
But more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, according to the UN, including government employees in Huthi-controlled areas who have not been paid in years.
Over 21.7 million people — two-thirds of the country — need humanitarian assistance this year, according to the UN.
The stampede tragedy follows a massive prisoner exchange between the country’s warring parties, which saw nearly a thousand detainees freed in recent days.
The prisoner releases came a month after Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, sparking a wave of rapprochement across the troubled region.