A crowd apparently spooked by gunfire and an electrical explosion stampeded at an event to distribute financial aid during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Yemen’s capital late Wednesday, killing at least 78 people and injuring at least 73 others, according to witnesses and Houthi rebel officials.
The tragedy was Yemen's deadliest in years that was not related to the country's long-running war, and came ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan later this week.
Armed Houthis fired into the air in an attempt at crowd control, apparently striking an electrical wire and causing it to explode, according to two witnesses, Abdel-Rahman Ahmed and Yahia Mohsen. That sparked a panic, and people, including many women and children, began stampeding, they said.
Video posted on social media showed dozens of bodies, some motionless, and others screaming as people tried to help. Separate footage of the aftermath released by Houthi officials showed bloodstains, shoes and victims' clothing scattered on the ground. Investigators were seen examining the area.
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The crush took place in the Old City in the center of Sanaa, where hundreds of poor people had gathered for a charity event organized by merchants, according to the Houthi-run Interior Ministry.
People had gathered to receive about $10 each from a charity funded by local businessmen, witnesses said. Wealthy people and businessmen often hand out cash and food, especially to the poor, during Ramadan.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Brig. Abdel-Khaleq al-Aghri, blamed the crush on the “random distribution” of funds without coordination with local authorities.
Yemen’s capital is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis since they descended from their northern stronghold in 2014 and removed the internationally recognized government.
Motaher al-Marouni, a senior health official, said 78 people were killed, according the rebels’ Al-Masirah satellite TV channel. At least 73 others were injured and taken to the al-Thowra Hospital in Sanaa, according to hospital deputy director Hamdan Bagheri.
The rebels quickly sealed off a school where the event was being held and barred people, including journalists, from approaching.
The Interior Ministry said it had detained two organizers and an investigation was under way.
The Houthis said they would pay some $2,000 in compensation to each family who lost a relative, while the injured would get around $400.
Yemen’s capital has been under the control of the Iranian-backed Houthis since they descended from their northern stronghold in 2014 and removed the internationally recognized government.
That prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene in 2015 to try to restore the government.
The conflict has turned in recent years into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, killing more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
More than 21 million people in Yemen, or two-thirds of the country’s population, need help and protection, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Among those in need, more than 17 million are considered particularly vulnerable.
In February the United Nations said it had raised only $1.2 billion out of a target of $4.3 billion at a conference aimed at generating funds to ease the humanitarian crisis.