More than 80 people were killed and hundreds 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 the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
At least “85 were killed and more than 322 were injured” after the stampede in the Bab al-Yemen district of the capital, a Huthi security official said.
“Women and children were among the dead,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
A second health official confirmed the toll.
An AFP correspondent in Huthi-controlled Sanaa said the incident took place inside a school where aid was being distributed.
Hundreds of people in the poverty-hit country had gathered to receive handouts, according to witnesses.
A video broadcast by the Huthi rebel’s 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, the footage showed.
Armed fighters in military garb and distribution workers screamed at the crowd to turn back as they pulled people out of the stampede.
The dead and injured have been moved to nearby hospitals and those responsible for the distribution were taken into custody, the Huthi’s interior ministry said in a statement carried by the rebel’s Saba news agency.
The ministry did not provide an exact toll but said “dozens of people were killed due to a stampede during a random distribution of sums of money by some merchants”.
The Huthi political chief Mahdi al-Mashat said a committee has been formed to investigate.
A Huthi security official said three people had been detained on suspicion of involvement.
– Widespread poverty –
Families rushed to 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 descend on one hospital entrance.
Security forces were heavily deployed around the school where the incident took place, according to the correspondent. They blocked relatives from entering the facility to locate loved ones.
Footage aired on Al Masirah TV showed corpses strewn across the complex, which was littered with sandles and scraps of clothes after the area was cleared.
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.
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 below the poverty line, 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 dims the cheer from a massive prisoner exchange between the country’s warring parties, which saw nearly 900 detainees freed over the weekend.
On Monday, more than 100 other prisoners of war were flown from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.