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Nigeria: 24 die in church stampede over politics

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A stampede at an all-night church vigil disrupted by politicking over a contentious gubernatorial election has killed 24 people and injured 17 in Nigeria's southeast Anambra state, the Red Cross and government officials said Sunday.

The stampede occurred before dawn Saturday at an All Saints' Day open-air vigil organized by St. Dominic's Catholic Church in the town of Uke, according to the deputy inspector general of police, Emmanuel Kachi Udeoji.

Dr. Peter Katchy of the local Red Cross chapter said they had a mobile clinic and small emergency station posted at the grounds because more than 100,000 people had gathered for very popular healing sessions by a local priest.

"There was a stampede, everybody said they heard someone crying 'Fire! Fire!' and in that stampeding some people were suffocated: 24 persons died there, five males, 19 females," Katchy told The Associated Press. He said another 17 casualties were hospitalized.

Katchy blamed "an over-large crowd and lack of crowd control." Newspaper and TV reports blamed politicking for the Nov. 18 elections. They quoted witnesses as saying the false warning of a fire was made to try to end a speech being made by Gov. Peter Obi, who attended the crusade and was booed as he tried to promote his gubernatorial candidate.

Obi said he left long before the stampede. "I did notice something unusual," he told reporters in comments broadcast on Channels Television. "When I wanted to speak, a group of people started shouting somebody's name. I had to curtail them and say we are here to worship. ... At the time I left everything was normal, there was no incident."

The name being shouted was that of a rival for the governorship, Sen. Chris Ngige, witnesses said on the TV. Some said Obi's bodyguards charged into the part of the crowd from which the catcalls had ensued, causing the stampede when someone shouted there were armed men attacking them.

Other witnesses said the way out was blocked by protesters chanting slogans against Obi and in support of Ngige. Udeoji, the police officer, said he could not understand how a stampede occurred when the vigil was out in the open, "there are no restraints here, there are no fences, nothing," he said on the TV, promising a full investigation.

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