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717 dead in Mecca stampede

People crushed as 'waves' of pilgrims crash into each other at sacred site

By AP Reporters

A horrific stampede has killed at least 717 pilgrims and injured hundreds more on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia - the deadliest tragedy to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in more than two decades.

At least 863 pilgrims were injured in the crush, said Saudi authorities.

The tragedy struck as Muslims around the world marked the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday.

It was the second major disaster during this year's hajj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly two million Muslims taking part in the pilgrimage.

A crane collapse in Mecca nearly two weeks earlier left 111 people dead.

Ambulance sirens blared and helicopters hovered overhead as rescue crews rushed the injured to nearby hospitals. More than 220 rescue vehicles and some 4,000 members of the emergency services were deployed soon after the stampede to try to ease the congestion and provide alternative exit routes.

Amateur video on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies - the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj - lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a street.

Many victims were crushed and trampled on their way to perform a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against a wall in Mina, a large valley about three miles from Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in past years. The area houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

Two 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 survivor, Abdullah Lotfy (44) from Egypt. "It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back."

Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam's holiest sites and host to millions of pilgrims annually.

But the hajj poses an immense logistical and security challenge for the kingdom, given the hundreds of thousands of people - from differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds, many of whom have saved for years for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the hajj - intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.

The kingdom's interior ministry said the crush appears to have been due to two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection.

The ministry's spokesman, Major General Mansour al-Turki, said high temperatures and the fatigue of the pilgrims may also have been factors in the disaster.

He said there was no indication that authorities were to blame for the event, adding that "unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment".

Belfast Telegraph


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