Afghans jostling for visas to Pakistan spark stampede, killing 15

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - At least 15 people were killed in a stampede among thousands of Afghans gathered to apply for visas for neighbouring Pakistan in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, officials said.

Thousands of Afghans had congregated on the open ground, usually used for sports or public gatherings, waiting to collect tokens needed to apply for a visa, two provincial officials told Reuters.

An Afghan news channel showed images of them holding passports aloft to secure a token. Images taken after the stampede showed scores of passports strewn across the ground.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Twitter he was “deeply saddened by the tragic deaths and casualties”.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Mansoor Ahmad Khan told Reuters the tragedy took place in a stadium around 5 kms (3.1 miles) from Pakistan’s consulate under a system devised by the Nangahar provincial government to provide a “token” to those seeking visas before they proceed to the consulate.

“Such a big crowd was unmanageable, a stampede occurred in which precious lives were official(s) of Pakistan’s consulate were involved,” he said, adding they had reports that tens of thousands had gathered to get tokens.

Earlier local Afghan officials had told Reuters that Pakistan’s consulate staff were distributing tokens and that the stampede had taken place overnight on Tuesday.

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Attaullah Khugyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor, confirmed that the token distribution was organised by the provincial government and around 300 police had been tasked with managing the crowd.

Eleven of the 15 victims were women, and several elderly people were among more than a dozen injured, said Sohrab Qaderi, a provincial council member, adding the stampede took place around 5 a.m.

A survivor described to Reuters how tempers flared and the crowd became unruly in the lead-up to the stampede.

“I stood in the queue all night but at some point people got angry and started pushing, many of us fell on the ground,” said Farmanullah, who goes by a single name.

Tens of thousands of Afghans every year travel to neighbouring Pakistan to secure medical treatment, education and jobs. The two countries share a nearly 2,600-kilometre (1,616-mile) border.

Pakistan hosts about 3 million Afghan refugees and economic migrants, who have fled violence, religious persecution and poverty in their war-torn country.

Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Emelia Sithole-Matarise