Deadly stampede the second tragedy to hit haj this year

Members of the Saudi emergency services moving among the bodies of those killed in the stampede as pilgrims looked on yesterday in Mina, about 5km from Mecca. The Saudi civil defence service said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had
Members of the Saudi emergency services moving among the bodies of those killed in the stampede as pilgrims looked on yesterday in Mina, about 5km from Mecca. The Saudi civil defence service said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to the stampede location to help the injured. A hospital official told AFP the incident happened outside the Jamarat Bridge structure, where the stoning of the devil takes place.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Pilgrimage largely incident-free for nearly a decade until the collapse of a construction crane last month killed 110

MINA (Saudi Arabia) • The stampede during the haj yesterday began at around 9am (3pm Singapore time), shortly after the civil defence service said on Twitter it was dealing with a "crowding" incident in Mina, about 5km from Mecca.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, for the last major ritual of the haj which officially ends on Sunday.

A hospital official told Agence France-Presse the incident happened outside the Jamarat Bridge structure, where the stoning takes place. A group of pilgrims leaving the area collided with another group that was either moving in the opposite direction or camped outside, the official said.

Emergency teams worked to ease the human congestion.

"Work is under way to separate large groups of people and direct pilgrims to alternative routes," the Saudi civil defence service said on its Twitter account.

FINGER-POINTING BEGINS

The head of Iran's haj organisation, Mr Said Ohadi, said that, for "unknown reasons", two paths had been closed off near the site of a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual where the stampede occurred. "This caused this tragic incident," he said on state television. More than 40 Iranian pilgrims were killed in the stampede.

Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed undisciplined pilgrims for the tragedy, saying it could have been avoided if they had "followed instructions".

It said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to the stampede location to help the injured. The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television channel showed a convoy of ambulances driving through the Mina camp. Some of the wounded were evacuated by helicopters.

Bodies were laid out on the ground, covered in white sheets and surrounded by personal belongings, including shoes and umbrellas used by pilgrims to shield themselves from the sun.

The incident came as the world's 1.5 billion Muslims marked Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar. It was the second major accident this year for haj pilgrims, after a construction crane collapsed on Sept 11 at Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, killing 110 people, including many foreigners.

The haj is among the five pillars of Islam and every able Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime.

For years the pilgrimage was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements.

In the last major incident in January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.

In 1990, a huge stampede in a tunnel in Mina, after a failure in its ventilation system, killed 1,426 pilgrims, mainly from Asia.

Yesterday's tragedy occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge, which was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) and intended to improve safety during the pilgrimage. Almost a kilometre long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite rival, blamed the Saudi authorities for the tragedy yesterday.

The head of Iran's haj organisation, Mr Said Ohadi, said that, for "unknown reasons", two paths had been closed off near the site of a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual where the stampede occurred.

"This caused this tragic incident," he said on state television.

More than 40 Iranian pilgrims were killed in the stampede.

Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed undisciplined pilgrims for the tragedy, saying it could have been avoided if they had "followed instructions".

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore's Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs and Minister for Communications and Information, yesterday sent his condolences to the families of all those who perished in the disaster. He noted that the Foreign Ministry had said that all Singaporean pilgrims were safe.

"Let us pray for the recovery of those injured, and may all pilgrims be able to complete their haj safely and smoothly," he said in a Facebook posting.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline 'Deadly stampede the second tragedy to hit haj this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe