Stampede in Yemen Kills 78 People Gathering to Receive Holiday Donations

At least 78 people died in a stampede in Yemen while gathering to receive charitable donations from local merchants ahead of a major Islamic holiday, a sign of how desperate many Yemenis have become after eight years of a civil war that has deepened poverty and hunger in the Arab world’s poorest country.

The tragedy unfolded on Wednesday night in the capital, Sana, which is controlled by the Houthis, an Iran-linked tribal militia that swept through northern Yemen in 2014 and displaced the internationally recognized government.

The Houthis’ health ministry said on Thursday that an additional 77 people were injured in the stampede, with 13 of them in critical condition. A Houthi interior ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdulkhaleq al-Ajri, said it was a tragic and painful accident during “the unorganized distribution of money by some merchants,” according to a statement published by Houthi media. It added that two of the merchants were arrested.

However, two witnesses told The Associated Press that before the stampede, armed Houthi militia members had fired guns into the air, hitting an electrical wire and causing the crowd to panic. The crowd had gathered in hope of receiving the equivalent of about $10 each from a charity funded by local businessmen, the report said.

The stampede came in the final days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and shortly before the start of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of a month of daytime fasting. Muslims typically celebrate with feasts and new clothing, luxuries impossible for many Yemenis as the war created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened against the Houthis in 2015 in an attempt to restore the internationally recognized government, leading a bombing campaign that human rights groups say has disproportionately killed civilians. With access to ports and flights restricted, many have been pushed to the brink of famine.

Even when food is available, many Yemenis cannot afford it. Civil servants have gone without salaries for years, pushing entire families into destitution. About 24 million people — 80 percent of Yemen’s population — are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations, and millions of people have been displaced.

Last week, Saudi and Houthi officials gathered in Sana for peace talks that raised hoped for a breakthrough in the war. Hans Grundberg, the United Nations envoy for Yemen, called it “the closest Yemen has been to real progress toward lasting peace.”

But the Saudi negotiators returned home without a deal, and Houthi officials said that talks would continue. But so far, those talks have almost entirely excluded the internationally recognized Yemeni government, a fact that Yemeni analysts say signals future trouble.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, on Thursday blamed “American-British-Saudi-Emirati aggression” for the severity of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

But many Yemenis say that the Houthis have significantly contributed to their suffering as well, creating a repressive police state and channeling resources to their war machine. Their security forces have detained journalists and ordinary citizens for criticizing the movement, and a report to the United Nations Security Council last year by the Panel of Experts on Yemen said the group regularly employed sexual violence against politically active and professional women.

Mahdi al-Mashat, president of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the stampede. Another official announced that the Houthis would offer one million Yemeni riyals in compensation to the family of each person killed, equivalent to several thousand dollars.

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