At least 85 people were killed and hundreds injured in a crush at a Ramadan cash handout in Yemen early on Thursday, as the impoverished country suffered one of its worst tragedies just as optimism was growing over its bitter civil war.
Three people were detained over the stampede in Sanaa, the rebel-held capital, after big crowds gathered at a school to receive gifts of 5,000 rial (about $8) — enough for a large family meal — for the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
Harrowing footage screened by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels’ Al Masirah TV showed a tightly packed crowd screaming and shoving, unable to move, while others attempted to haul stricken people out of the crush.
Other shots showed dead bodies on the ground as the panic continued. Afterwards, piles of abandoned sandals, clothing and a crutch littered the scene, while an investigator in white protective gear collected evidence.
“It was a huge crowd. They fell on me, and I got hurt,” an injured child told Al Masirah from his hospital bed.
A Huthi security official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that at least 85 people were killed and “more than 322” injured, 50 of them seriously.
“Women and children were among the dead,” the official said. A health official confirmed the toll.
The tragedy comes just ahead of Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim festival, and punctures a buoyant mood over the war in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, following peace talks and an exchange of nearly 1,000 prisoners last week.
The Huthis, who seized Sanaa in 2014, are fighting a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia that intervened in March 2015 in an attempt to reinstall the ousted government.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the war’s direct or indirect causes, and millions pushed to the brink of famine. But momentum is growing for a truce and peace process, with the Saudis and Huthis holding talks last week.
– ‘People flocked in a huge way’ –
Eyewitnesses said gunfire sparked a stampede after crowds gathered at the school, in Sanaa’s historic Bab Al-Yemen district, to receive the handouts from a businessman. AFP could not verify the reports of gunfire.
The head of the Huthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohamed Ali al-Huthi, blamed “overcrowding”, saying people were packed in a narrow street leading to the school’s back entrance.
Once the gates opened, the crowd streamed into a tight staircase leading to the courtyard where the distribution was taking place.
Hours after the chaos, tattered clothing and footwear were still strewn around the scene, and a stone stairway was spattered with blood.
“There were many people who came to receive charity money, and I was among them,” Ola Saeed, 28, told AFP.
“People jostled on top of each other, and my head was pressed against the wall because of all the pushing.”
The Huthis’ political chief Mahdi al-Mashat said a committee had been formed to investigate.
The US embassy and British ambassador sent their condolences, and France’s foreign ministry said it was a reminder of the “urgency” of ending Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and conflict.
Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy to Yemen, said he was “pained and deeply saddened by the tragic stampede”.
After the crush, families converged on hospitals but many were not allowed to enter as senior officials were also visiting the dead and injured.
The World Health Organization tweeted that it had “provided medical and surgical supplies to Al Thawra hospital, which received the majority of cases”.
Footage from one hospital showed dazed and bandaged survivors recovering in a ward.
Yemen is no stranger to tragedy, most stemming from its brutal war.
In 2016, a coalition air strike killed more than 140 people attending a funeral, and dozens of children died in a strike on a bus in 2018.
At least 70 people died in an air strike on a prison in Saada, the Huthis’ home city, in January 2022, and in March 2021, 45 were killed in a blaze at a Sanaa migrant centre caused by Huthi forces firing teargas canisters.