AT LEAST 11 people were killed yesterday in a stampede in a town in central Zimbabwe after police fired tear gas at locals trying to leave a church rally.
Forty others were injured, and church officials said they feared the death toll could rise.
Police claimed the stampede at the Mbizo Stadium in Kwekwe was caused by panic among thousands of rally-goers trying to get out of the only exit at around 2am on Friday morning.
Eyewitnesses said the police had sealed off other exits and then fired tear gas when members of the congregation began to dismantle parts of the perimeter wall.
Four people died on the scene and seven others died in hospital. A pregnant woman and three children were among the dead.
More than 15,000 people had flocked to what had been billed as a two-day crusade by popular Zimbabwean “prophet” Walter Magaya in Kwekwe, which is around 132 miles from the capital Harare. Pictures circulating on social media showed the crumpled wall of the stadium in the aftermath of the tragedy.
However, yesterday senior assistant police commissioner Shadreck Mubaiwa denied tear gas was used.
He added: “Police tried to rescue people but they were overwhelmed by the crowds. It is unfortunate that people wanted to rush out, which made it difficult to contain the situation”.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
Mr Magaya said: “I am gutted. I had already left the venue when I got news that there was a commotion and moments later I was told of people seriously injured.
“Within minutes I was told that eight people had died and others were serious. I rushed back to the venue and it was very sad, the saddest moment of my life. As of this morning I am made to understand that three more died.”
News of the tragedy caused outrage among Zimbabweans on social media. Just two weeks ago several people were injured when police fired tear gas at fans attending an indoor dance competition in Harare.
Zenzele Ndebele, editor at the independent radio station Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo, said in a tweet: “I don’t understand why police will block exits and then throw teargas on innocent people.”
Twitter user @RangaMberi wrote: “You allow just one exit, then fire tear gas… Criminal.”
Mr Magaya is one of a breed of fabulously rich and highly-successful “prophets” who have emerged in recent years as Zimbabwe sinks back into economic crisis and disillusioned Zimbabweans pin their hopes on churches rather than opposition politicians.
Mr Magaya heads the Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministries, which gained a huge following earlier this year when Zimbabwe’s best-known pole-dancer Beverley Sibanda announced she was a follower. She has since left Mr Magaya’s church.
Mr Magaya makes his support for the ruling Zanu-PF regime clear. Earlier this month he said there was “no better leader” than the country’s 90-year-old president Robert Mugabe.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS