DHAKA • At least 24 people were killed in a stampede during a Ramadan charity handout in Bangladesh 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 yesterday, according to local police chiefs.
Up to 1,500 people had massed outside the factory at around 4.45am (6.45am Singapore time) after the owners of the chewing tobacco factory had announced they would distribute free clothes to poor people in accordance with Islamic ritual.
Television footage from the site showed hundreds of torn and blood-spattered sandals abandoned at the gate of the factory, which is located around 120km north of capital Dhaka.
"We have so far recovered 24 bodies. Most of the dead were poor and emaciated women and there were two children," Mymensingh police chief Moinul Haque said, putting the number of injured at more than 50. Mr Kamrul Islam, the senior officer at a police station near the factory, said the death toll was likely to rise further. Many of the victims were ferried by rickshaws to a nearby hospital.
"My wife had gone there to collect some clothes for herself and for our children," Mr Mohammad Robiul, a rickshaw puller, told the Somoy Television news channel.
"I don't know what will happen to my kids," Mr Robiul, who lost his wife in the tragedy, said, 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," said rickshaw-puller Dulal Mia. "Once one person fell to the ground, another 15 to 20 people fell, too. The people got killed when they closed the gate."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed shock over the tragedy. In a condolence message, she offered prayers and "conveyed profound sympathy to the bereaved families".
The Religious Affairs Ministry said it would pay each family 10,000 taka (S$174) to cover the cost of the funerals.
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," said District Governor Mustakim Billah. A special police committee has been set up to investigate the tragedy and will report its findings within three days.