YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — The death toll in a stampede outside a game at the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament in Cameroon has risen to eight, as witnesses blamed security officials for making fatal errors and competition organizers decided Tuesday to suspend all further games at the stadium pending an investigation.
Another seven people were in serious condition in the hospital after the crush Monday night at the game between host Cameroon and Comoros at the Olembe Stadium in the capital, Yaounde.
The African soccer body has moved the next game due to take place at the Olembe on Sunday to another stadium in Yaounde. The last two games at the Olembe, a semifinal and the final of the African soccer championship on Feb. 6, could also be moved.
“I have given the local organizing committee … up to Friday to tell me who was responsible for the accident, who shares the blame and additional safety and security measures taken to protect football fans, players and match officials,” said Patrice Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football, which runs the African Cup alongside local organizers from the host country.
“Our priority is the safety of people and if we are not assured that the stadium offers that safety, we will not accept matches to be played there again,” he said.
The death toll increased after two more fans were pronounced dead outside the Messassi hospital, police said. Injured people had initially been rushed to that nearby hospital by police and civilians trying to help. The hospital quickly became overwhelmed.
A total of 38 people were hurt in the stampede. The remaining 31 people had slight to moderate injuries. The injured were now being treated at four different hospitals, Communication Minister René Sadi said. On Tuesday morning, people gathered at the hospitals searching for missing family members.
The crush came when soccer fans struggled to get into the stadium to watch the home team play in a highly-anticipated knockout game at Africa’s top soccer tournament. The tragedy may have been connected to fans trying to avoid COVID-19 checks. Organizers have made it compulsory that fans show proof of negative virus tests and be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to attend games at the African Cup. They need to go through that health screening as well as security checks at stadiums.
Local TV stations broadcast footage showing people jumping over security fences to avoid checks and there are reports that police and security were overwhelmed. The Cameroon government said 57,000 people were at the stadium when the crowd was meant to be restricted to a maximum of 40,000 because of the virus. The Olembe has a capacity of 60,000.
A witness said the stampede at the south entrance of the stadium happened after supporters were directed by security officials toward an entrance gate that was locked. The gate was eventually opened, the witness said, causing a surge and people were trampled. Children were caught up in the stampede, the witness said.
“When the security guys finally began opening the gates, with all the anxiety and after having been locked out … people pushed the security guys away and forced themselves inside,” said the witness, Marie-Therese Asongafack. “That’s where it all began … By the time I found myself in front, there were people on the ground being trampled on.”
Medical help wasn’t immediately available, “so people were just trying their basic first aid on victims,” Asongafack said. “I saw a child less than 10 years old, lifeless. Guys were trying to revive him.”
Later Tuesday at a news conference, African soccer body president Motsepe said the initial investigation would center on why that gate at the stadium was shut.
“Who closed that gate? And why did they close that gate?” he said.
World soccer body FIFA released a statement expressing its “deepest condolences” to the families and friends of the victims. FIFA president Gianni Infantino attended the African Cup’s opening ceremony at the Olembe Stadium two weeks ago.
Cameroon President Paul Biya also ordered an investigation into the tragedy, which came a day after at least 17 people died after a fire set off a series of explosions at a nightclub in Yaounde.
The Central African nation is hosting the African Cup for the first time in 50 years and its preparations have been under scrutiny. Cameroon was meant to host the tournament in 2019, but it was moved to Egypt because of problems with Cameroon’s stadium preparations.
The main Olembe Stadium was one of the arenas that organizers were concerned about and serious concerns were still being raised as recently as a few months ago.
Games are also being played in four other cities. Organizers said the tournament would continue as planned later Tuesday with last 16 games between Senegal and Cape Verde and Morocco and Malawi.