The tragedy was the deadliest in years not related to Yemen’s long-running war and came ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan later this week.
Armed Houthis fired into the air in an attempt to control the crowd, apparently hitting an electrical cable and causing it to explode, according to two witnesses, Abdel-Rahman Ahmed and Yahia Mohsen. That sparked panic and people, including many women and children, began stampeding, they said.
Video posted on social media showed dozens of bodies, some motionless and others screaming as people tried to help. Separate images of the aftermath released by Houthi officials showed bloodstains, shoes and clothing from the victims scattered on the ground. Investigators were seen examining the area.
The crowd took place in the Old City in central Sanaa, where hundreds of poor people had gathered for a charity event organized by merchants, according to the Houthi-run Interior Ministry. Distributing financial aid is a ritual during Ramadan, when worshipers fast from dawn to dusk.
People had gathered to receive about $10 each from a charity funded by local businessmen, witnesses said. Wealthy people and businessmen often hand out cash and food, especially to the poor during Ramadan.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdel-Khaleq al-Aghri, blamed the crush on the “random distribution” of funds without coordination with local authorities.
Motaher al-Marouni, a senior health official, said 78 people were killed, according to the rebels’ Al-Masirah satellite TV channel. At least 73 others were injured and taken to al-Thowra Hospital in Sanaa, according to the hospital’s deputy director, Hamdan Bagheri.
The rebels quickly cordoned off a school where the event was taking place and prohibited access to people, including journalists.
The Home Office said it had detained two organizers and an investigation was underway.
The Houthis said they would pay about $2,000 in compensation to each family that lost a relative, while the injured would receive about $400.
Yemen’s capital has been under the control of the Iranian-backed Houthis since they descended on their northern stronghold in 2014 and toppled the internationally recognized government.
That prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene in 2015 to try to restore the government.
The conflict has escalated in recent years into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, killing more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
More than 21 million people in Yemen, or two-thirds of the country’s population, are in need of aid and protection, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Among those in need, more than 17 million consider themselves particularly vulnerable.
In February, the United Nations said it had raised just $1.2 billion of a $4.3 billion target at a conference aimed at raising funds to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.
Magdy reported from Cairo.