A crowd of people apparently spooked by gunfire and an electrical explosion stampeded at an event to distribute financial aid in Yemen’s capital late Wednesday, killing at least 78 and injuring at least 73 others, according to eyewitnesses and Houthi rebel officials.
Abdel-Rahman Ahmed and Yahia Mohsen, who witnessed the scene, said armed Houthis had fired into the air in an attempt at crowd control, apparently striking an electrical wire and causing it to explode. That sparked a panic, and people, including many women and children, began stampeding, they said.
Video posted on social media showed dozens of bodies on the ground, some motionless and others screaming as people tried to help.
The crush took place in the Old City in the center of Sanaa, where hundreds of poor people gathered for the event organized by merchants, according to the Houthi-run Interior Ministry.
The ministry’s spokesman, Brig. Abdel-Khaleq al-Aghri, blamed the crush on the “random distribution” of funds without coordination with local authorities. The tragedy came ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan later this week.
Motaher al-Marouni, a senior health official in Sanaa, gave the death toll of 78 and said at least 13 were seriously hurt, according the rebels’ Al-Masirah satellite TV channel.
Hamdan Bagheri, deputy director of the al-Thowra Hospital in Sanaa, said in televised comments that the tragedy took place around 8.20 p.m. and the facility received at least 73 injured people.
The rebels quickly sealed off the school where the event was held and barred people, including journalists, from approaching.
The Interior Ministry said it had detained two organizers and an investigation was underway.
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.