Ibb stadium death toll expected to reach 118 [Archives:2006/981/Front Page]

September 14 2006
Dead bodies scattered at the hospital yards.
Dead bodies scattered at the hospital yards.
By: Nashwan Dammaj
Yemen Times Staff, and Agencies

A stampede and collapsing walls caused the deaths of more than 62 Yemenis in Ibb, mostly men, during a presidential rally Tuesday.

IBB, Sept. 13 ) The number of causalities resulting from the Ibb Sports Stadium presidential rally potentially could reach 118, according to the head of Ibb's criminal investigation department. The staggering number of people, whose weight fences couldn't handle, caused portions of the stadium wall to collapse, crushing those below.

Led by Ibb's governor, the local council authority has launched an investigation into the incident. According to Yemen's Saba News Agency, President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued a statement wherein he declared the deceased martyrs of democracy and ordered YR 1 million in financial aid given to their families.

He also instructed the state to cover the medical expenses of all those injured, in addition to compensating them with certain monetary amounts. Dedicating YR 25 million for such medical care, the government announced that the campaign rallies will continue.

Up until Wednesday night, confirmed deaths numbered 62: 38 reported at Al-Thawra Hospital and 24 at Nasir Hospital. Six bodies were transported from Ibb's Al-Thawra Hospital to Taiz due to lack of space in local morgues.

What really happened

More than 200,000 people were crammed inside and around the stadium, whose maximum capacity is 10,000. Movement in and out of the stadium was restrained because only two of four gates were open – one for men and the other for women. “The place was very crowded. We barely could breathe and of course those big posters and banners made the situation worse,” one attendee said.

Thorough security measures were taken as citizens entered the stadium, with grid bars installed to limit movement and allow checking for weapons. Such measures weren't removed in time for citizens to exit the stadium, so men hastily began climbing the 1.5-meter walls to get out. The weight of the men scaling the walls caused some segments to collapse, crushing those below and causing the deaths of more than 40.

This happened a few minutes after Saleh finished his campaign speech, when the crowd began moving and caused a stampede. Moreover, the rushing masses exiting through the open gate uprooted the security grids, thus creating an opening in the ground approximately two meters deep.

The opening beneath the surface increased due to an old water channel buried underground. Some men who fell into the opening died instantly, while others were taken to the hospital in critical condition. A statement from Ibb's provincial government put the death toll on Wednesday at 51, with more than 230 injured.

Hospitals and medical care

President Saleh briefly visited hospitals where the dead and injured were transported, becoming angry at their miserable conditions. Official sources said he urged hospital management to provide the victims their utmost care.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing children and teenagers among the bodies brought to hospitals from the stadium.

Several Ibb hospitals received victims, but only two, Al-Thawra and Nasir, had oxygen cylinders. Most hospitals couldn't adequately care for patients. Because only two ambulances were at the scene, victims were transported on garbage trucks and other public vehicles. Eyewitnesses said the bodies of the deceased were scattered around hospital grounds and those of some marginalized peoples even were scattered outside hospital grounds.

Media and public reaction

Yemen Times Ibb correspondent Nashwan Dammaj was detained approximately 40 minutes and security confiscated his camera's memory card and ID while attempting to investigate the incident. Several other media personnel from various media outlets were forbidden to follow up the incident or photograph victims in hospitals or at the scene.

Citizen reactions varied from condemning the rally's organization and declaring it another example of state corruption to considering it a matter of fate and thanking the state for its compassion and support for victims and their families.

Walid Jahzar of Al-Ishtiraki.net said 33-year-old Fathiya Ahmed Al-Najar of Al-Najd Al-Ahmar was killed in the stampede after being forced to attend the rally despite suffering kidney failure.

Al-Arabia television channel reported that a Yemeni official in Ibb expressed that hundreds of angry citizens crowded around the stadium because of the incident, causing security to fire live bullets into the air to disperse them.

A Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) press statement condemned the event's organization, as well as the fact that employees were forced to leave their offices and students were transported from their schools to the stadium in a show of support for the president.

Simultaneously, official media reported that many Yemenis said the tragic incident won't deter them from voting for Saleh and that they remain very enthusiastic about participating in this democratic experience.

The European Union Election Observation Mission in Yemen offered its condolences to the Yemeni people. In a press release, Baroness Nicholson, the mission's head, stated: “I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to the Yemeni people, and especially to the people of Ibb, for the loss of so many innocent lives in yesterday's tragic events.”

Rumors and allegations

JMP media spokesman Ali Al-Sarari said in a press statement: “Although we're deeply saddened by the tragedy, nevertheless, it's another indication of corruption and abuse of state resources and influence.”

Opposition parties used the incident to once again point fingers at the current regime's mismanagement and “government's carelessness in dealing with lives,” as stated by a JMP opposition figure.

In a press statement, the JMP also alleged that the ruling party has allocated YR? 100 million to gather crowds at every presidential rally.

Simultaneously, official media lashed out at opposition, accusing them of “using the accident to discredit the election process and destroy the people's confidence in Yemen's democracy.”

Also in Taiz

At least four people were killed and 10 injured in Taiz province Monday during a stampede at a similar election rally, government officials said, without giving further details.

Yemen's presidential and local council elections will be held next Wednesday. Long-serving president and election frontrunner Saleh is touring Yemeni provinces to drum up support for his re-election campaign.

Previous elections have been marred by shootings between members of rival parties in Yemen, where many citizens carry arms, but stampedes are unusual. Other than the two stampedes, at least eight people have been killed so far in the run-up to the election, which includes five candidates.