Image: Stampede victims
Khaled Fazaa  /  AFP - Getty Images
Army and security trucks carry people injured in Tuesday's stampede at a campaign rally in Ibb, Yemen.
updated 9/12/2006 7:49:28 PM ET 2006-09-12T23:49:28

A stampede broke out Tuesday in a stadium packed with thousands of people for an election campaign rally for Yemen’s president, killing at least 51 people and injuring more than 230, including youths bused in for the event.

The tragedy came as President Ali Abdullah Saleh — in power for nearly 30 years — is campaigning in the oil-rich nation’s first competitive presidential elections, set for Sept. 20, against a single rival who has drawn tens of thousands to his rallies.

The president has been eager to show he has broad popular support — even announcing last year that he would not run for re-election, then reversing himself, citing appeals from the public for him to stay.

Saleh, who has allied himself with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, offered condolences to the families of the victims of the stampede, which occurred at a rally where he was speaking in the town of Ibb, 120 miles south of the capital, San‘a.

“The spontaneous scramble of Yemeni people who rushed out with huge crowds to take part in the electoral rally is a clear evidence that Yemenis are lovers of democracy,” he was quoted as saying by the Yemeni official news agency.

Overflow capacity
The stadium was filled beyond its capacity of around 10,000, jammed with people carrying gigantic posters of Saleh and banners vowing their support. Government workers and students from schools around the Ibb area had been brought in on government buses to participate.

The stampede broke out minutes after Saleh finished addressing the rally and left the stadium.

Participants were constantly moving in and out of the stadium. Medical and security officials said the stampede broke out when some people leaving ran into those entering, causing some to trip and fall and be trampled.

Overcrowding and a lack of clearly marked exit signs contributed to the stampede, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

A statement from the Ibb provincial government put the death toll at 51 with more than 230 injured. Witnesses reported seeing children and teens among the bodies brought out from the crowd.

Opposition wants investigation
Opposition groups called for an investigation and urged the government to punish those responsible for the tragedy. The government announced that campaign rallies will continue.

In the southern city of Aden, Saleh’s sole opponent Faisal bin Shamlan held his own campaign rally, drawing some 50,000 supporters. Bin Shamlan’s campaign stops have seen large crowds — one last month as big as 100,000 people.

Bin Shamlan is an oil industry executive who has spoken out against al-Qaida and won respect for resigning from parliament in 1995 to protest government corruption. He was named to run by Yemen’s five main opposition parties.

Saleh has been in power since 1978 — first as president of North Yemen, then as head of the unified state after the 1990 merger of North and South. He first held elections in 1999, defeating a member of his own party who ran as an independent. Opposition parties were not allowed to participate.

Leader walks a tightrope
He has allied himself with the United States in the war on terrorism, cracking down on Islamic militants in his country, which is the ancestral homeland of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and was the scene of the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors.

But at the same time, he has also allied himself with Islamicist parties, maneuvering to keep their support amid the arrests of militants.

His government has touted September’s election as part of a reform program, but many observers fear a repeat of fraud said to have plagued past voting.

Saleh provoked criticism in June when he reversed his pledge not to seek another seven-year term saying he was “yielding to the people’s desire” that he stay on. He made a similar announcement and reversal ahead of the 1999 vote.

Since Yemen discovered oil in 1986, the government has been accused of rampant corruption and failing to pump oil wealth into the ailing economy. Unemployment is at 36 percent in the impoverished country.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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