Stampede death toll rises as Hajj ends

  • 27/09/2015
Stampede death toll rises as Hajj ends

Saudi Arabia has deployed large numbers of special forces as pilgrims performed the final rituals of a hajj marred by double tragedy, with the death toll from a stampede rising to 769.

Health Minister Khaled al-Falih on Saturday announced the new figure for Thursday's disaster, an increase from the previous toll of 717.

The number hurt rose to 934 from 863 recorded just after the deadliest incident in a quarter-century to strike the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Dozens of special emergency force personnel were seen on one level of Jamarat Bridge, a five-storey structure in Mina where pilgrims ritually stone the devil, and on which hundreds of thousands were converging when the stampede occurred nearby.

Many more patrolled the network of roads leading to the structure.

The interior ministry has said it assigned 100,000 police to secure the hajj and manage crowds.

But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the throng, during searing temperatures.

Criticism has also been particularly strident from Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, which raised to 136 Saturday the number of its people who died.

"It is not only incompetence, but a crime," Iranian Attorney General Ebrahim Raeisi said, calling on the kingdom to take those responsible to court.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took Riyadh to task, saying "unfortunately, we have not seen enough cooperation" up until now.

"Of course, the circumstances are special and urgent, but we expect more serious commitment," he added, without spelling out exactly what was lacking.

Culture Minister Ali Janati is to head a delegation to Saudi Arabia to follow up on 344 Iranians Tehran says are missing.

The disaster was the second deadly accident to mar the hajj. A massive construction crane collapsed on the Grand Mosque in the nearby holy city of Mecca days beforehand, killing 109 people, many of them pilgrims.

Undeterred on Saturday, pilgrims in Mina still flooded the area to perform the stoning for a third time, on the last day of the hajj which this year drew about two million people.

Most pilgrims began leaving on Saturday, returning to Mecca where they circumambulate the holy Kaaba structure before going home.

Abdullah al-Sheikh, chairman of the Shura Council, which advises the government, stressed that pilgrims must stick to "the rules and regulations taken by the security personnel".

That echoed comments Friday by Health Minister Falih, who faulted the worshippers for the tragedy, saying that if "the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided".

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef chairs the Saudi hajj committee and has ordered an investigation into the stampede.

King Salman, whose official title is "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina, also ordered "a revision" of how the hajj is organised.

For years, the hajj was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nine years after safety improvements and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is expected to perform it at least once in a lifetime.