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Witnesses Blame Saudi Authorities for Haj Stampede

by AFP


Over 700 people dead and hundreds more injured in disaster that pilgrims blame on lack of crowd control.

Blame shifted toward Saudi Arabian authorities on Friday after a stampede at the Haj killed at least 717 people, in the worst tragedy to strike the annual Muslim pilgrimage in a quarter-century.

The disaster, which also left several hundred people injured, was the second deadly accident to hit worshippers this month, after a crane collapse in the holy city of Mecca killed more than 100.

At the scene, bodies lay in piles, surrounded by discarded personal belongings and flattened water bottles, while rescue workers laid corpses in long rows on stretchers, limbs protruding from beneath white sheets. Dark-skinned and light-skinned, they died with arms draped around each other.

“There was no room to maneuver,” said Aminu Abubakar, a Nigerian pilgrim who escaped the crush of bodies because he was at the head of the procession. Fellow pilgrims told him of children dying despite parents’ efforts to save them near the sprawling tent city where they stay. “They threw them on rooftops, mostly tent-tops… Most of them couldn’t make it.”

The stampede broke out in Mina during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual. The Saudi civil defense service said it was still counting the dead, who included pilgrims from different countries.

Iran said 131 of its nationals were among the victims, and accused regional rival Saudi Arabia of safety errors. Islamabad said seven Pakistanis were killed.

Pilgrims at the scene blamed the Saudi authorities and said they were afraid to continue the Haj rituals.

But Abubakar, an AFP reporter based in Kano, Nigeria, said that on Friday morning crowd control had improved and the number of pilgrims was much less. “Now it’s more organized… There’s more control from the entry points. We don’t expect a repeat of what happened,” he said while moving back to the stoning site on the second of three stoning days.

King Salman ordered “a revision” of Haj organization, the official Saudi Press Agency said, while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayyef, who chairs the kingdom’s Haj committee, started an inquiry.

Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed worshippers for the tragedy. He told El-Ekhbariya television that if “the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.”

The stampede began at around 9:00 a.m. Thursday, shortly after the civil defense said on Twitter it was dealing with a “crowding” incident in Mina. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, for the last major ritual of the Haj, which officially ends on Saturday.

Thursday’s tragedy occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge, which was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion and intended to improve safety. Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said the stampede was caused when “a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time” at an intersection of two streets in Mina.

“The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims,” he said. Temperatures in Mina had reached 46 degrees Celsius on Thursday.

Witnesses, however, blamed the authorities. One outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the Haj. “They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people,” said Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. “There’s no crowd control.”

The disaster came as the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims marked Eid al-Azha, the Feast of Sacrifice. It was the second major accident this year for pilgrims, after a construction crane collapsed on September 11 at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 109 people, including many foreigners.

The Haj is among the five pillars of Islam, and every capable Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime. Official figures released on Thursday said 1,952,817 pilgrims had performed this year’s Haj, including almost 1.4 million foreigners. For years, the event was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements.

There was little immediate information on the nationalities of the dead, though India said 14 of its nationals died, while Jakarta said three Indonesians were killed. Officials in Turkey said at least 18 of its citizens were reported missing.

In Shia-dominated Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “improper measures” and “mismanagement” by Saudi authorities, who he said “must accept the huge responsibility for this catastrophe.”

Condolences came from around the world, including from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while Pope Francis expressed solidarity with Muslims and voiced the “closeness of the church” in the face of the tragedy.

The stoning ritual emulates the Prophet Abraham, who is said to have stoned the devil when he tried to dissuade Abraham from God’s order to sacrifice his son Ishmael. At the last moment, God spares the boy, sending a sheep to be sacrificed in his place.

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