23 dead in Bangladesh stampede

Dhaka, July 10

A stampede during a Ramadan charity handout killed at least 23 people in Bangladesh today as hundreds of desperately poor people tried to get their hands on free clothing, police said.

The stampede in the northern city of Mymensingh erupted when crowds of people tried to force their way into a factory compound through a small gate after massing outside before dawn, according to local police chiefs.

Television footage from the site showed scenes of utter devastation, with hundreds of torn and blood-spattered sandals abandoned at the gate of the chewing tobacco factory, which is located around 120 kilometres north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

“We have so far recovered 23 bodies. Most of the dead are poor and emaciated women,” Mymensingh police chief Moinul Haque told AFP, putting the number of injured at more than 50.

Kamrul Islam, the senior officer at a police station near the factory, said the death toll was likely to rise further while local media said scores of people had also been injured.

“Some people had taken the bodies of their relatives before police arrived at the scene,” Islam said.

Many of the victims were ferried by cycle rickshaws to a nearby hospital with television footage showing relatives rushing through the entrance and corridors, cradling the lifeless bodies of their loved ones in their arms.

“My wife had gone there to collect some clothes for herself and for our children,” Mohammad Robiul, a rickshaw-puller, told the Somoy Television news channel.  “I don’t know what will happen to my kids,” Robiul added before bursting into tears.

A witness told the bdnews24 website that the stampede began when a number of people fell to the ground as a melee erupted. “As the gate was opening, everybody ran towards it, pushing and shoving each other and then they started falling,” an unnamed witness said.”Once one person fell to the ground, another 15 to 20 people fell, too. The people got killed when they closed the gate.”

Police and local officials said the owner of the factory and six other people have been arrested for failing to ensure public safety. “Legal action will be taken against them,” District Governor Mustakim Billah told reporters. A special police committee has been set up to investigate the tragedy and is set to report its findings within the next three days.

Police said up to 1,500 people had massed outside the factory at around 4:45 am (2245 GMT on Thursday) after the owners had announced they would distribute free clothes to poor people in accordance with Islamic ritual.

Rich Bangladeshis often distribute free clothes to poor people during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on June 19. But the handouts have sparked several deadly stampedes over the years.

Around 40 people were killed in a similar stampede at a garment factory in the northern city Tangail in 2002.