Over 700 Killed in Crush of Hajj Pil­grims in Saudi Ara­bia

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

Two gi­ant waves of Mus­lim pil­grims col­lided at an in­ter­sec­tion on Thurs­day near a holy site in Saudi Ara­bia, and more than 700 peo­ple were crushed and tram­pled to death in the worst dis­as­ter at the hajj in a quar­ter-cen­tury.

“Peo­ple were climb­ing over one another just to breathe,” said Ab­dul­lah Lotfy of Egypt. The hajj, which drew 2 mil­lion peo­ple from over 180 coun­tries this year, is a huge lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge for Saudi Ara­bia. The king­dom has spent bil­lions of dol­lars to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing num­ber of pil­grims and main­tain safety and se­cu­rity at Is­lam’s holy cities of Mecca and Me­d­ina for the an­nual event. Saudi author­i­ties be­gan an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said In­te­rior Min­istry spokesman Maj. Gen. Man­sour al-Turki, adding that ini­tial re­ports showed two crowds com­ing from op­pos­ing di­rec­tions con­verged at an in­ter­sec­tion in Mina, on the out­skirts of Mecca, when the push­ing and shov­ing started. “Un­for­tu­nately, these in­ci­dents hap­pen in a mo­ment,” al-Turki said at a news con­fer­ence. But four sur­vivors ques­tioned how of­fi­cials man­ag­ing the flow of peo­ple could al­low two big crowds go­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions to in­ter­sect on two streets packed with pil­grims.

As of late Thurs­day, the Saudi civil de­fense di­rec­torate said the death toll was 719, but that prob­a­bly would rise as bod­ies con­tin­ued to be counted and sent to the morgue. At least 863 peo­ple were in­jured, the di­rec­torate said.

An AP jour­nal­ist saw bod­ies still ly­ing on the ground more than 10 hours af­ter the crush and en­su­ing stam­pede in Mina, a large val­ley con­tain­ing 160,000 tents for ac­com­mo­da­tions about three miles from Mecca.

One crowd had just fin­ished a rit­ual in which pil­grims throw peb­bles at three stone col­umns rep­re­sent­ing the devil when it ran into another wave of peo­ple head­ing to per­form the rite. Su­danese pil­grim Mo­hammed Awad, 36, and his 56-year-old fa­ther were sep­a­rated when peo­ple be­gan push­ing and shov­ing. Awad said he tried to get out of the crush of bod­ies for about 30 min­utes and even­tu­ally climbed over a gate with oth­ers. It took him an hour be­fore he could look for his fa­ther, who was un­der at least 10 bod­ies — but still alive. “You can’t count how many bod­ies there were. They were stacked high,” Awad said. Am­a­teur video on so­cial media showed scores of bod­ies — many still dressed in the sim­ple terry cloth gar­ments worn dur­ing hajj — ly­ing amid crushed wheel­chairs and wa­ter bot­tles on a sun­baked street. He­li­copters cir­cled Mina through­out the day, fer­ry­ing the in­jured to hos­pi­tals, while mil­i­tary po­lice blocked the streets where the deaths took place.

Saudi Ara­bia takes great pride in its role as the care­taker of Is­lam’s holi­est sites and host to mil­lions of Mus­lims who must per­form the hajj at least once in their lives. Signs posted around Mecca tell pil­grims that Saudi Ara­bia is hon­ored to serve them, and the Saudi king takes the ti­tle of “Cus­to­dian of the Two Holy Mosques” in ref­er­ence to the sites in Mecca and Me­d­ina. About 100,000 se­cu­rity forces were de­ployed to man­age the crowds and pro­vide se­cu­rity for this year’s hajj, with 5,000 CCTV cam­eras through­out Mecca and Me­d­ina.

Saudi Ara­bia’s re­gional ri­val Iran im­me­di­ately blamed the king­dom for mis­man­age­ment in the dis­as­ter. At least 131 Ira­ni­ans died, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial IRNA news agency, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei said Saudi Ara­bia “is obliged to ad­mit its re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

It was the sec­ond ma­jor ac­ci­dent dur­ing this year’s hajj sea­son. On Septem­ber 11, a con­struc­tion crane crashed down onto the Grand Mosque, killing 111 peo­ple and in­jur­ing more than 390.

“The rep­u­ta­tion of the king­dom is on the line,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Mid­dle East ex­pert at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. “The fact is, de­spite ev­ery­thing Saudi Ara­bia has done, ac­ci­dents and tragedies con­tinue to hap­pen.”

As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emi­rates, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Maram Mazen and

Merrit Kennedy in Cairo;d Mu­nir Ahmed in Is­lam­abad and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran,

con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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