'Unruly pilgrims' caused hajj stampede

Stricken families were hunting for their loved ones on Friday after a stampede that killed 362 Muslims at the annual hajj—a disaster Saudi authorities have blamed on unruly pilgrims.

Weeping in front of a wall of pictures of dead pilgrims, families continued to seek news of missing relatives at the morgue in Mina, scene of the worst stampede during the hajj since 1 426 pilgrims were killed in 1990.

Riyadh has blamed the stampede on unruly pilgrims from outside officially sanctioned operators during the ritual of the stoning of pillars symbolizing the devil.

But some witnesses said police triggered the chaos by suddenly blocking the entrance to a bridge, and others reported panic among pilgrims about when they should perform the last rite of hajj in which about 2,5-million took part.

Officials said 362 pilgrims, including about 100 Egyptians and 60 Asians, were crushed to death and about 300 others were injured in the stampede on the last day of hajj on Thursday in Mina, east of the holy city of Mecca.

“We now have 362 dead, including about 100 Egyptians,” said Hussein Saleh Bahashwan, deputy director at al-Muaysem morgue, just outside Mina.

“Most of the dead are Egyptians, Africans, Saudis and from various Asian countries,” said Khaled Yassine, director of evacuation operations at the ministry of health.

At least 30 Pakistanis, 26 Indians, four Chinese and two Indonesian nationals were among the victims.

Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz said in remarks published on Friday by the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the stoning ceremony had been taking place for several days without problems.

“But what happened is that more than 12 people were carrying a large amount of baggage on their backs, so when it became too crowded they fell on the ground one on top of the other,” he said. “People kept falling one on top of the other until about 300 people died.

“Our pilgrim brothers are forbidden from carrying baggage and workloads on their shoulders during the stoning ritual.”

On Thursday, Saudi Health Minister Hamad bin Abdullah al-Maneh said the stampede was caused by “unruly pilgrims, and a problem of luggage”.

Interior ministry spokesperson Mansur al-Turki also said the accident occurred “because of the luggage that fell and led to a rush at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat bridge”, where the pilgrims stone the three pillars.

The stoning of Satan is the riskiest episode of the hajj as the pilgrims jostle to make sure their pebbles touch the pillar while the weaker ones risk being trampled on by the masses.

The latest tragedy comes days after 76 people were killed when a hostel in the heart of Mecca collapsed last week.

Almost 60 000 security, health, emergency and other personnel were involved in organising this year’s hajj, trying to prevent the deadly incidents that have marred it in recent years from being repeated.

A total of 251 Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death in the 2004 hajj as people panicked during the stoning.

The ritual, which is spread out over three days, marks the final part of the hajj pilgrimage for the more than two million Muslim pilgrims who have flocked to Mecca from around the world.

In 2003, 14 pilgrims, including six women, were killed in a stampede during the first day of the stoning ritual, and 35 died in 2001, while in 1998 the hajj saw 118 killed and more than 180 hurt at Mina.

The deadliest toll of the pilgrimage was in July 1990 when 1 426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina.

The hajj, which follows a journey by the Prophet Mohammed more than 1 400 years ago, is one of the five pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-life time duty for those able to complete it.—AFP

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