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11 women and children killed in crush at Pakistan food distribution centre

The National logo The National 31/03/2023 Associated Press
Families mourn after a crush at a Ramadan food distribution centre outside a factory in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi. AP © Ikram Suri Families mourn after a crush at a Ramadan food distribution centre outside a factory in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi. AP

Eleven women and children were killed and more were feared dead in a crush at a Ramadan food distribution centre in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi on Friday, police and rescue officials said.

The incident happened when hundreds of women and children panicked and started pushing each other to collect food outside a factory. Some of them fell into a nearby drain, local police official Mughees Hashmi said.

Residents said a wall also collapsed near the drain, injuring and killing people in the rush.

Several people were also injured. Police said eight women and three children died.

It is the deadliest crush at a food distribution point since the start of Ramadan. With the latest incident, the death toll from such incidents at free food centres across Pakistan has risen to at least 21 since last week.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is from the southern Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, ordered authorities to investigate what caused the incident.

Mr Hashmi said the factory owner who organised the food distribution centre had not alerted police about the plan.

He said local police were unaware of the distribution, otherwise they could have sent officers.

Mohammad Arsalan said he lives near the factory where people had gathered since the morning to collect the free food.

He said he did not know what exactly caused the incident, but “we heard cries and later learnt about this”.

Friday's incident comes a day after authorities ordered additional police to Ramadan food distribution centres to avoid overcrowding.

Cash-strapped Pakistan launched an initiative to distribute free flour among low-income families to ease the impact of record-breaking inflation and soaring poverty during the holy month. But crowds have swelled at the distribution centres in recent days.

The free flour distribution initiative was launched by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif last week, although his coalition government is facing the country's worst economic crisis amid a delay in getting a $1.1 billion tranche of a $6 billion bailout package originally signed in 2019 with the International Monetary Fund.

On Friday, Mr Sharif visited a wheat flour distribution centre in Islamabad and met women who had come to collect flour. The Prime Minister asked authorities to ensure that people are treated well and there are no further incidents.

Weekly inflation is 45 per cent — unseen since Pakistan got its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Rising food costs and soaring fuel bills have raised fears of public unrest.

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