Iranian-Saudi war of words continues over haj tragedy

TEHERAN • Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, yesterday demanded that Saudi Arabia apologise for a stampede at the haj pilgrimage that killed nearly 770 people, at least 144 of them Iranians.

"Instead of passing the buck and playing a blame game, the Saudis should accept their responsibility and apologise to the world's Muslims, and the bereaved families," Mr Khamenei said in comments reported by the official Irna news agency.

Iranian leaders have been fiercely critical of the Saudi authorities' handling of safety at the haj, and questioned whether Riyadh was fit to continue organising the annual pilgrimage.

Mr Khamenei's comments came just hours after Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir hit back at criticisms from its regional rival, saying it "shouldn't play politics with a tragedy". "I believe the Iranians should know better than to play politics with a tragedy that has befallen people who were performing their most sacred religious duty," Mr Jubeir said.

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Janati is to head a delegation to Saudi Arabia to follow up on 323 Iranians, who Teheran says are missing. However, according to Irna, the members of his team still have not received visas.

On Saturday, Teheran summoned Saudi Arabia's charge d'affaires for the third time since the stampede, to press the kingdom for greater cooperation.

President Hassan Rouhani appealed for United Nations mediation with the Saudis, in a meeting with UN chief Ban Ki Moon in New York, state television reported.

"Sadly, Riyadh isn't offering enough cooperation on the missing pilgrims and the transfer of the dead and injured," it quoted Mr Rouhani as saying. "It is crucial that the UN remind Riyadh of its legal and humanitarian obligations."

But Mr Jubeir, delivering remarks alongside United States Secretary of State John Kerry in New York, said Saudi Arabia was on top of the situation.

Mr Jubeir said: "The kingdom has had a long history of spending tremendous resources to care for the pilgrimage, to ensure that the pilgrims... have a successful pilgrimage.

"And we will reveal the facts when they emerge. And we will not hold anything back. If mistakes were made, whoever made them will be held accountable.

"And we will make sure that we will learn from this, and we will make sure that it doesn't happen again. I want repeat again: This is not a situation with which to play politics."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Iranian-Saudi war of words continues over haj tragedy'. Print Edition | Subscribe