Iran Supreme Leader demands Saudi Arabia apologise for deaths during haj stampede

An Iranian protestor holding a picture of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a demonstration at Tehran's Enghelab square, against Saudi Arabia, after 131 Iranian pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the annual haj.
An Iranian protestor holding a picture of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a demonstration at Tehran's Enghelab square, against Saudi Arabia, after 131 Iranian pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the annual haj. PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's Supreme :eader has said Saudi Arabia should apologise for a crush outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca that killed 769 worshippers performing the annual haj pilgrimage, his website said on Sunday (Sept 28).

"This issue will not be forgotten and the nations will pursue it seriously. Instead of accusing this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologize to the Muslims and the victims' families," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, which is locked in a series of proxy wars in Arab countries around the Sunni Muslim kingdom, says that at least 144 Iranians are among the dead.

Over 300 other Iranians remain unaccounted for, including former ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi, Fars news agency reported.

Other Iranian officials have said they believe more than 1,000 pilgrims were killed in the disaster.

"The Islamic World has a lot of questions. The death of more than 1,000 people is not a small issue. Muslim countries should focus on this," Ayatollah Khamenei said.

The disaster happened when two large groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca, on their way to performing the "stoning of the devil"ritual at Jamarat.

Iran has summoned the Saudi charge d'affairs three times to ask Riyadh for more cooperation over the incident. Parliament is meeting behind closed doors to decide how Iran should pursue this incident lagally.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used a major United Nations speech last Saturday to demand an investigation into the crush.

The fact that Mr Rouhani used a UN summit meeting on global development goals to reiterate Iran's outrage over the haj tragedy was a sign that Teheran does not intend to tone down criticism of its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and the Saudis see themselves as leaders in the Muslim world.

In his speech to the 193-nation UN General Assembly, Mr Rouhani emphasized the need for an investigation into "the causes of this incident and other similar incidents in this year's haj".

He described the crush as "heart-rending".

Saudi Arabia suggested last Friday that pilgrims who ignored crowd control rules bore some blame for the incident. Saudi King Salman ordered a review of haj plans, and Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted.

Iran has repeatedly voiced outrage at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world's largest annual gathering of people.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of playing politics with the tragedy. "This is not a situation with which to play politics," he said before meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry. "I would hope that the Iranian leaders would be more sensible and more thoughtful with regards to those who perished in this tragedy and wait until we see the results of the investigation."

Mr Rouhani suggested last Friday the tragedy may be a result of the Saudis transferring experienced troops to Yemen to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a military campaign that Teheran has repeatedly criticised.

Two weeks ago, 110 people died in Mecca's Grand Mosque when a crane working on an expansion project collapsed during a storm and toppled off the roof into the main courtyard, crushing pilgrims underneath.

Mr Rouhani also told the UN summit last Saturday that the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China "has created suitable conditions for regional and international cooperation including in the field of environmental preservation".