YAOUNDE – At least six people died in a crush outside a stadium hosting a game at Africa's top soccer tournament in Cameroon on Monday, a local government official said, realizing fears over the capacity of the country to stage the continent's biggest sports event.
Naseri Paul Biya, the governor of the central region of Cameroon, said there could be more deaths.
“We are not in position to give you the total number of casualties,” he said.
The crush happened as crowds struggled to get access to Olembe Stadium in the capital city of Yaounde to watch the host country play Comoros in a last 16 knockout game in the African Cup of Nations.
Officials at the nearby Messassi hospital said they received at least 40 injured people, who were rushed to the hospital by police and civilians. The officials said the hospital wasn't capable of treating all of them.
“Some of the injured are in desperate condition," said Olinga Prudence, a nurse. “We will have to evacuate them to a specialized hospital.”
People were seen lying motionless on their backs near an entrance to the stadium in the aftermath of the crush. A man knelt next to one of the victims and appeared to be trying to resuscitate the victim. Shoes, caps and colorful wigs — part of some of the fans' game costumes — were strewn on the ground.
Witnesses said children were among those caught up in the crush. The witnesses said it happened when stadium stewards closed the gates and stopped allowing people in. It was not immediately clear if the crush happened before or during the game.
Soccer officials said around 50,000 people had tried to attend the match. The stadium has a capacity of 60,000 but it was not meant to be more than 80% full for the game due to restrictions on the size of the crowd because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Confederation of African Football, which runs the African Cup, said in a statement it was aware of the incident.
“CAF is currently investigating the situation and trying to get more details on what transpired,” it said. “We are in constant communication with Cameroon government and the Local Organizing Committee.”
One of the federation's top officials, general secretary Veron Mosengo-Omba, went to visit injured fans in the hospital, the statement said.
Cameroon is hosting the African Cup for the first time in 50 years. The Central African nation was meant to host the tournament in 2019 but the event was taken away from it that year and awarded to Egypt because of serious concerns with Cameroon's preparations, particularly the readiness of its stadiums.
Olembe Stadium was one of the venues that was under scrutiny. It is the main stadium for the monthlong tournament and will stage three more games, including the final on Feb. 6.
Monday's incident was the second serious blow to the country in the space of a day, after at least 17 people died when a fire set off a series of explosions at a nightclub in Yaounde on Sunday.
Following that incident, Cameroon President Paul Biya urged the country to be on guard while it hosts its biggest national sports event in a half century.
Cameroon won Monday's game 2-1 to move on to the quarterfinals.