Haj ends as stampede death toll rises to 769

An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Sept 25, 2015.
An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Sept 25, 2015.REUTERS

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - Saudi Arabia deployed large numbers of special forces Saturday as pilgrims performed the final rituals of a haj marred by double tragedy, with the death toll from a stampede rising to 769.

Health Minister Khaled al-Falih announced the new figure, an increase from the previous toll of 717.

The number hurt rose to 934 from 863 recorded just after the deadliest incident in a quarter-century to strike the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Dozens of special emergency force personnel were seen on one level of Jamarat Bridge, a five-storey structure in Mina where pilgrims ritually stone the devil, and on which hundreds of thousands were converging when Thursday’s stampede occurred nearby.

Many more patrolled the network of roads leading to the structure, which resembles a parking garage.

The interior ministry has said it assigned 100,000 police to secure the hajj and manage crowds.

But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the throng, during searing temperatures.

Criticism has also been particularly strident from Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, which raised to 136 Saturday the number of its people who died.

“It is not only incompetence, but a crime,” Iranian Attorney-General Ebrahim Raeisi said, calling on the kingdom to take those responsible to court.

‘MORE COOPERATION NEEDED'

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took Riyadh to task, saying “unfortunately, we have not seen enough cooperation” up until now.

“Of course, the circumstances are special and urgent, but we expect more serious commitment,” he added in remarks from New York, without spelling out exactly what was lacking.

Culture Minister Ali Janati is to head a delegation to Saudi Arabia to follow up on 344 Iranians Teheran says are missing, but state news agency Irna said his team still has not received visas.

The disaster was the second deadly accident to mar the haj. A massive construction crane collapsed on the Grand Mosque in the nearby holy city of Mecca days beforehand, killing 109 people, many of them pilgrims.

Undeterred Saturday, pilgrims in Mina still flooded the area to perform the stoning for a third time, on the last day of the haj which this year drew about two million people.

They also stood in prayer.

Most pilgrims began leaving on Saturday, returning to Mecca where they circumambulate the holy Kaaba structure before going home.

Traffic was hardly moving as crowded cars and buses jammed the route, with some pilgrims on the roofs of their buses.

“We are thankful to our brothers in Saudi Arabia for this effort,” Abdullah Ali, a 38-year-old Emirati said in Mina. He blamed other pilgrims for the stampede and urged more awareness.

 
 
 

“As you can see, people come from different backgrounds. They are affected by their cultures.”

Abdullah al-Sheikh, chairman of the Shura Council, which advises the government, stressed that pilgrims must stick to “the rules and regulations taken by the security personnel”.

That echoed comments Friday by Health Minister Falih, who faulted the worshippers for the tragedy, saying that if “the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided”.

‘LESSON’ FOR NEXT HAJ

Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that the incident was beyond human control.

“You are not responsible for what happened", SPA quoted Sheikh as telling him.

“Fate and destiny are inevitable.”

The prince chairs the Saudi haj committee and has ordered an investigation into the stampede.

King Salman, whose official title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina, also ordered “a revision” of how the haj is organised.

Authorities have yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of pilgrims killed in the stampede, as the difficult process of identification continues.

But several countries, largely African and Asian, have announced deaths.

Only around 250 deaths in total have been officially confirmed by foreign officials.

Sudanese pilgrim Abdulmahmud Rahman, 52, said he was happy to have carried out the haj rituals but “pained that some pilgrims had died in such catastrophic circumstances”.

He said he hoped organisers “would learn a lesson” for next year.

Rahman suggested that when police close roads, it should be done from far away with signs warning pilgrims, so they do not find themselves crowded into the same area.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said “a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time” at an intersection in Mina.

“The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims,” he said.

For years, the haj was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nine years after safety improvements and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment.

The stoning bridge, erected in the past decade, has a capacity of 300,000 pilgrims an hour and was intended to improve safety after past disasters.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is expected to perform it at least once in a lifetime.