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Iran blames Saudi Arabia over pilgrims killed in hajj stampede

Published 25/09/2015

Pilgrims walk by the site where hundreds were killed during the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia (AP)
Pilgrims walk by the site where hundreds were killed during the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia (AP)

Iran has blamed rival Saudi Arabia over the disaster at the hajj that killed more than 700 pilgrims, as Muslims solemnly resumed the final rites of the annual pilgrimage.

Thousands protested in the streets of Tehran as a senior cleric angrily demanded Saudi Arabia hand over control of the annual pilgrimage to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world's largest body of Muslim nations.

For its part, the OIC said it supported Saudi Arabia's efforts at keeping some two million pilgrims safe in the annual hajj that all able-bodied Muslims are expected to perform once in their lifetime.

However, the protests show the deep tensions between the Sunni kingdom and the Shiite powerhouse.

Saudi authorities are investigating what sparked Thursday's disaster in Mina, about three miles from Mecca. Initial reports suggested two crowds coming from opposing directions converged on an intersection, which began pushing and shoving until a stampede began.

The Saudi civil defence directorate said the death toll was 719, but that it probably would rise. At least 863 people were injured, the directorate said.

Countries around the world began reporting on casualties and their missing, including Pakistan, which said at least 236 of its pilgrims were unaccounted for. Egypt said the death toll for the country had risen to 14.

India said at least 14 of its citizens died in the crush, which also claimed the lives of at least four Turks, three Indonesians, three Kenyans and seven Pakistanis. Authorities in West Africa said 30 pilgrims from Mali and five from Senegal also died.

Among all those countries, Iran immediately appeared to be hardest hit, saying 131 of its pilgrims died and 85 were injured.

Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a senior cleric in Tehran, called for the OIC to take over administration of the hajj.

"The Saudi government and authorities involved in hajj should appear before court and be held accountable," he said. "They should not lie and say, 'It was because this or that, the weather was hot, it was the pilgrims' faults'."

However, Iyad Madani, the secretary-general of the 57-nation OIC, supported the Saudi efforts.

Mr Madani "expressed hope that no party would seek to take advantage of the pilgrimage and pilgrims, and the incidents that might happen when these crowds of millions perform the same rituals at the same time, in a controversial context that would divide rather than unite," a statement read.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are chief rivals in the greater Middle East. That conflict is on display in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bombing Shiite rebels there Iran has backed.

The hajj pilgrimage is a main pillar of Islam. This year, around two million people from more than 180 countries took part in the five-day pilgrimage, which ends Saturday. The mood remained sombre despite the hajj coinciding with Eid al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday.

"Yesterday's stampede was a catastrophe. We were shocked, but we can do nothing, this was their fate," said Lolo Omar, a pilgrim from Eritrea, speaking near the site of the disaster in Mina. "We wish that Allah will facilitate our pilgrimage."

Survivors said the disaster began when one wave of pilgrims found themselves heading into a mass of people going in another direction.

"I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one another just to breathe," said one of the survivors, Abdullah Lotfy, 44, from Egypt. "It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back."

Mr Lotfy said that having two flows of pilgrims interacting in this way should never have happened. "There was no preparation. What happened was more than they were ready for," he said of the Saudi authorities.

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