A stampede at a church service killed at least 29 people, including 11 children, in the West African nation of Liberia, after word that armed gang members were robbing worshipers caused panic, according to witnesses.
The deadly crush took place Wednesday as people were leaving a nighttime service known as a “crusade” organized by a popular Pentecostal church at a school soccer ground in New Kru Town, a poor neighborhood of Monrovia, the Liberian capital.
As word spread that people were being robbed on their way out, members of the church, the World of Life Outreach Mission International, tried to get out through a narrow gate in a fence that surrounded the soccer ground, eyewitnesses said.
“People were running back into the fence in fear for their lives,” Emmanuel Gray, a resident of New Kru Town, told the Liberian radio station OK FM. “Many of them started to fall down and then people began to walk over them.”
He and other young men pulled the bodies of 17 people out of the crush and took them to a hospital, he said.
Another worshiper told the same radio station that panic had spread when gangsters locally known as “zogos” arrived and began to rob people at knife point.
“People hear that the zogos taking the people things from them after the crusade,” said the worshiper, James Toe.
A police spokesman said that investigations were underway and that one person had been arrested, carrying a knife. President George Weah of Liberia, who said in a statement that he was “disheartened” by the deaths, announced three days of mourning.
The pastor who led the service, Abraham Kromah, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths.
He is being questioned as part of the police investigation, according to Moses Carter, a spokesman for Liberia National Police.
“We are going to ensure that all those that are responsible for what occurred are made to face the full weight of the law,” Mr. Carter said in a statement.
Several organizations pointed to the gang members’ role in the stampede as a serious threat to Liberia.
The Federation of Liberian Youth, a powerful group in a nation where over 60 percent of the population is under 25, said that it was a sign of the “national security emergency facing the nation from its youthful population.”
And the United Nations Development Program’s representative in Liberia said that it highlighted “the plight of unemployed youth in Liberia and the drug abuse menace in the country.”
Liberia is still dealing with the fallout of two civil wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and forced many children to become child soldiers. It also has high levels of unemployment and, though it is rich in natural resources, is one of the poorest countries in the world.