PORT HARCOURT, Feb 18 – A stampede at a campaign rally for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in the oil-producing Niger Delta region killed at least 11 people and injured 29 others, police said.
The incident occurred in the oil city of Port Harcourt after Jonathan addressed the crowd, according to those present. A witness said a police officer shot into the air as crowd members surged out of the 20,000-seat stadium.
While the gunshots were apparently aimed at controlling the crowd, they instead created panic, with the main gate appearing locked and rally-goers attempting to leave through a narrow passageway.
A number of people were trampled in the rush, witnesses said, and other exits to the stadium appeared locked.
Police in a statement asked members of the public to come forward with information on the cause, but made no mention of an officer shooting into the air.
"The mishap was said to have been caused by a stampede as a result of a surging crowd which led to the death of 11 persons and causing injuries to about 29 others," police said.
Jonathan, who is the first president from the Niger Delta region in the country\’s south, issued a statement expressing grief over the incident.
"I am sad, and heavily weighed down by this incident. It is sad, unfortunate and regrettable," he said.
The president said he had ordered an investigation into the cause of the frenzied rush "that led to the unfortunate loss of some lives."
Chris Amadi, a ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Rivers State, of which Port Harcourt is the capital, said he saw more than 10 people trampled.
"I personally saw many people ran over by the crowd. In fact, I saw the bodies of three women being carried into an open pick-up van by the… (emergency management agency) officials," he said.
Jonathan kicked off his campaign on Monday ahead of the April 9 election and set off on a cross-country tour. Heavy security has been in place, with Nigeria hit by a surge of violence in recent weeks.
He emerged as the PDP candidate last month, upsetting an internal party arrangement that sees power rotated between the north and south every two terms.
The violence has included bomb attacks in the central city of Jos and the capital Abuja. There have also been attacks at political rallies in recent months, though none has occurred at Jonathan\’s campaign gatherings.
Saturday\’s rally was something of a homecoming for Jonathan, who is from neighbouring Bayelsa state.
He is the strong favourite in the election, with the PDP having won every presidential vote since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
However, he faces pressure to hold a credible vote after a series of violent and badly flawed elections in Africa\’s most populous nation.
The April 9 presidential election will be followed by elections for state governors, on April 16.