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Saudi blamed for hajj stampede that kills 717

25 September 2015, 18:54

Mina - Blame shifted towards Saudi authorities on Friday after a stampede at the hajj 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.

Dark-skinned and light-skinned, they died with arms draped around each other.

"There was no room to manoeuvre," said Aminu Abubakar, an AFP correspondent who was among the pilgrims and 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."

At the scene on Thursday, 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.

The stampede broke out in Mina, about five kilometres (three miles) from Mecca, during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual.

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

India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Netherlands also confirmed deaths and Turkey reported 18 missing. Moroccan media reported 87 nationals among the dead.

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

However, they said security had improved on Friday and the crowd was smaller.

Special emergency forces were heavily deployed across Mina with dozens of troops at every level of the five-storey stoning bridge.

A Kenyan survivor who returned to the pillars on Friday told AFP his group lost three people, including one whose fate remains unknown.

"I can blame the Saudi government because they did not control (the situation). I was there. I survived," Isaac Saleh said as tears welled in his eyes.

Another Kenyan, Rahman Shareef, said that "the Jamarat (stoning site) is good today. I had fears but I'm still alive and hope my family sees me surviving."

King Salman ordered "a revision" of the way the hajj is organised, the official Saudi Press Agency said, and a formal inquiry began.

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".

Pilgrims, however, blamed the closure of roads and poor management of the flow of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in searing temperatures.

"People were stumbling, falling, trying to get up. They were dehydrated, getting disorientated, they were dying in front of our eyes," South African businessman Zaid Bayat, 43, told the ANA news agency.

"They were suffocating. We tried to help revive them, but for every person you were helping there were 13, 14 others just falling down. It was very traumatic," said Bayat, who was leading a group of South Africans.

The stampede began at around 9:00 am (0600 GMT) Thursday.

Pilgrims were converging on Mina's Jamarat Bridge to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, for the last major ritual of the hajj, which officially ends on Saturday.

The bridge was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion (893 million euros) and intended to improve safety.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said the stampede happened 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.

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 hajj.

"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-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar.

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.

- Condolences from Pope -

The hajj is among the five pillars of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime. Official figures released on Thursday said 1,952,817 pilgrims had joined this year's hajj, 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.

In Shiite-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 UN 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.

Muthama did not hide his frustration at the fact that Waiguru was being supposedly favoured by the government.

" She is corrupt but continues being protected time after time by who? Can Uhuru tell us?" he added.

Waiguru has been under pressure in recent times to quit office after it was announced that KES 791 million was lost by the National Youth Service which lies under her Devolution docket.

She has so far protested her innocence in the matter.

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