A mass food poisoning at a camp for displaced people near the northern city of Mosul killed at least two people and sickened over 700, Iraq’s health minister said Tuesday, becoming the latest battleground in the crisis engulfing Qatar and a string of other Arab nations.
A woman and a girl died and at least 200 people were rushed from the desert tent camp to hospitals in the nearby city of Irbil.
An Iraqi lawmaker who visited the camp overnight and Saudi state television quickly accused a charity from Qatar of providing the tainted food. The claims could not be independently confirmed and Qatari officials did not immediately answer calls for comment.
In Baghdad, Health Minister Adila Hamoud told The Associated Press that 752 people became ill after a meal the previous evening at the Hassan Sham U2 camp, about 20 kilometres east of Mosul.
The food was meant for an iftar, a meal with which Muslims break their dawn-to-dusk fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Hamoud said at least 300 people remain in serious condition. She refused to speculate whether the poisoning might have been intentional.
Amira Abdulhaliq, from the United Nations’ refugee agency, said it remains unclear at which point in preparing, packaging, transporting or distributing the meals, the food became contaminated.
“So far, we have received around 800 cases, around 200 have been transported to the hospitals in Irbil,” she said.
Many children ill
At midday Tuesday, medics were treating patients in a large tent at the edge of the camp. About 20 to 30 patients, mostly small children, lay on blankets on the floor as several more serious cases were being ferried away by ambulances. At least one new patient was brought in during the day. Most of those afflicted were suffering from stomach cramps and dehydration, resulting from vomiting and diarrhea.
Iraqi lawmaker Raad al-Dahlaki, who chairs the parliament’s immigration and displacement committee and who visited the camp overnight, said the meal contained rice, a bean sauce, meat, yogurt and water. He put the number of sickened people at 850.
Al-Dahlaki said the food was distributed by a Qatari non-governmental organization, a charity known as RAF. He added that Iraqi officials were to meet those from the organization later on Tuesday. The Doha-based charity did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
At a joint press conference later in the camp, Irbil police chief Abdulhaleq Talaat said seven people were arrested in connection with the incident. Irbil Governor Nawzad Hadi said only one person — a child — had died. The different death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.
Talaat and Hadi said the food was prepared in an Irbil restaurant by a local NGO, Ain el Muhtajeen, under a donation by RAF. Dr Sabur Ahmed, head of Irbil children’s hospital, said 22 children remained in hospital while the rest have been discharged.
Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar
On Twitter, Saudi state television accused RAF of supplying the tainted meals and posted images it said showed the camp’s children “poisoned by the terrorist Qatari RAF organization.”
Since a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia began June 5, Arab media across the greater Persian Gulf have daily unleashed a series of highly critical reports on Qatar. Those reports include highly provocative stories about Qatar allegedly trying to undermine regional security, often presented without attribution or evidence.
RAF is the acronym for the Qatar-based Thani Bin Abdullah Al Thani Foundation for Humanitarian Services, a charity that collects donations to do aid work around the world, including providing meals to needy families during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Qatari government officials also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
RAF is also among 12 organizations and 59 people put on what Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini officials described as a list of terror entities and individuals on Friday.
On Qatari state television meanwhile, a repeatedly aired program has discussed how the ongoing diplomatic dispute has stopped it from providing meals to Syrian refugees at a major camp in Jordan.
The Hassan Sham U2 camp houses thousands who have fled their homes in and around Mosul after a U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive was launched to dislodge the Islamic State group from the city last October. According to the UN refugee agency, it is home to 6,235 people.
Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014 as the militants swept over much of the country’s northern and western areas. Weeks later, the head of the Sunni extremist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.
Months after the start of the Iraqi offensive, ISIS militants now only control a handful of neighbourhoods in and around the Old City, located west of the Tigris River, which divides Mosul into its western and eastern sector.