Follow up (AIN) -This was the second major disaster of this pilgrimage season, or hajj. Earlier this month, a crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing at least 109 people.
Saudi officials described the midmorning stampede— about three miles from the holy city of Mecca—as a “tragic accident.”
Health Minister Khaled al-Faleh told state television that crowding was one cause.
But he also blamed the throngs of pilgrims for failing to heed instructions to move according to a tight schedule to avoid overcrowding.
An estimated two million Muslims from around the world have thronged the holy city to participate in this year’s hajj, which began Tuesday.
Among the dead were 43 pilgrims from mainly Shiite Muslim Iran, according to Iran’s state news agency.
Iranian officials castigated the Riyadh government for the disaster on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
“The failure of the Saudi rulers to provide security for the pilgrims is inexcusable,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Iran is engaged in a fierce battle for influence with predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia in the region and across the Muslim world.
Each year, the hajj poses a major logistical challenge to Saudi authorities.
Every financially and physically able adult Muslim is obliged to perform the hajj once, taxing the kingdom’s infrastructure every year.
The pressure is compounded by the multitude of nationalities and languages of those performing the hajj and its rituals, which occur at specific locations in and around Mecca over a short period.
Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca. ENLARGE
Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
In Thursday’s disaster, the stampede came as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were moving en masse to a site to throw pebbles against three stone walls in a symbolic stoning of the devil.
Efforts to direct the crowds were compounded by the heat, as temperatures hit 110 degrees.
Saudi authorities maintain a tight rein over the number of Muslims allowed annually to perform the hajj.
In recent years, they have also restricted the number of visas issued to Muslims from abroad until major constructions projects in the holy city are completed.
A HISTORY OF HAJJ TRAGEDIES
Sept. 24: A stampede during the “stoning of the devil” ritual in the Mina area near Mecca leaves more than 700 dead and more than 800 injured.
Sept. 11: At least 109 people are killed when a crane collapses on Mecca’s Grand Mosque after strong winds and heavy rain.
Jan. 12, 2006: More than 360 pilgrims killed in a stampede during the Mina stoning ritual.
Jan. 6, 2006: More than 70 people die in a hotel collapse in the center of Mecca.
Feb. 1, 2004: Some 250 people killed in a stampede at Mina, also at the stoning ceremony.
April 9, 1998: Nearly 120 people killed in a stampede at Mina.
April 15, 1997: A fire caused by a gas stove rips through a camp housing pilgrims at Mina, killing at least 340 and injuring around 1,500.
May 24, 1994: About 270 people are killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual.
July 2, 1990: A huge stampede in a tunnel at Mina after the failure of a ventilation system kills 1,426 pilgrims, mainly from Asia.
July 31, 1987: Saudi security forces suppress an unauthorized protest by Iranian pilgrims. More than 400 people are killed.
Nov. 20, 1979: Gunmen opposed to the Saudi government barricade themselves inside the Grand Mosque, taking hostages. The official death toll topped 150.
Dec. 1975: A fire started by an explosion of a cooking-gas canister in a pilgrim camp close to Mecca kills more than 200 people.
Saudi Arabia prides itself as a leader of the Islamic world.
The king’s official title since 1986 has been “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”—a reference to the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
In 2006 more than 346 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in the same area.
A panicked charge in a pedestrian tunnel in 1990 left 1,426 dead.
After the crane collapse, Saudi King Salman vowed to ensure the safety and security of pilgrims.
The accident was blamed on high winds and the failure of contractor Saudi Binladin Group to meet safety standards.
Late Thursday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who heads the government committee that oversees the hajj, ordered an investigation into what he described as a “tragic accident,” the official Saudi Press Agency said./End/