SANAA, Yemen (AP) — At least 78 people were killed and at least 73 wounded when gunfire and an electrical explosion rocked the Yemeni capital late Wednesday at a fund-raising event during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. According to witnesses and Houthi rebel officials.
The tragedy was the deadliest in years unrelated to Yemen’s long-running war, and came ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan later this week.
Two witnesses, Abdel-Rahman Ahmed and Yahya Mohsen, said armed Houthis fired into the air in an attempt to control the crowd, apparently hitting an electric wire and causing it to explode. This triggered a panic, and people, including many women and children, began to be stampeded.
Video posted on social media showed dozens of bodies, some motionless, and others screaming as they tried to help. Separate footage of the aftermath released by Houthi officials showed bloodstains, shoes and clothes of the victims strewn on the ground. Investigators canvassed the area.
According to the Houthi-run Interior Ministry, hundreds of poor people gathered in the Old City in the center of Sana’a for a charity event organized by merchants. During Ramadan, when believers fast from dawn to dusk, distributing financial aid is a ritual.
Witnesses said people gathered to receive $10 each from a charity funded by local merchants. Rich people and businessmen often give money and food to the poor during Ramadan.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Brig. Abdel-Khalek al-Agri blamed the crackdown on “random distribution” of funds without coordination with local authorities.
Senior health official Motaher al-Marouni said 78 people were killed, according to the rebels’ Al-Masira satellite television. At least 73 people were injured and taken to Al-Thawrah Hospital in Sana’a, said Hamdan Bagheri, deputy director of the hospital.
The rebels sealed off a school where the event was taking place and barred people, including journalists, from approaching.
The Home Ministry said two organizers have been arrested and an investigation is underway.
The Houthis said they would pay $2,000 in compensation to each family that lost a relative, and about $400 to those injured.
Yemen’s capital has been under the control of the Iranian-backed Houthis since they ousted the internationally recognized government from their northern stronghold in 2014.
This prompted the Saudi-led coalition to try to restore the government in 2015.
The conflict has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent years, killing more than 150,000 people, including militants 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, are in need of aid and protection, according to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs. Of those in need, more than 17 million are considered particularly vulnerable.
In February the United Nations said it had raised only $1.2 billion of a $4.3 billion target at a conference aimed at creating funds to ease the humanitarian crisis.
Magdy reported from Cairo.