Over 700 killed in haj stampede near Mecca

Members of Saudi civil defence trying to rescue pilgrims following a crush caused by large numbers of people pushing at Mina, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, on Sept 24, 2015.
Members of Saudi civil defence trying to rescue pilgrims following a crush caused by large numbers of people pushing at Mina, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, on Sept 24, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

MINA (Saudi Arabia) • A huge stampede killed at least 717 people and injured hundreds more at the annual haj in Saudi Arabia yesterday, in the pilgrimage's worst tragedy in a quarter century.

There were no reports of any Singaporean casualties, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday.

More than 860 people were injured in the crush at Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca, which Saudi authorities said was caused by two large groups of pilgrims arriving together at a crossroads on their way to performing the "stoning the devil" ritual at Jamarat.

Yesterday's disaster was the worst to befall the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Mecca. Both stampedes occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.

Photographs published on the Saudi civil defence service's Twitter feed yesterday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance. Bodies could also be seen lying on the ground by the side of the road.

The haj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past. But the frequency of such incidents was greatly reduced in recent years as the Saudi government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding haj infrastructure and crowd-control technology.

Official figures released yesterday showed that 1,952,817 pilgrims performed this year's haj, including almost 1.4 million foreigners. Foreign embassies were working to identify and assist their citizens caught up in the stampede.

Even before yesterday's stampede, this year's pilgrimage season was marred by disasters. Two weeks ago 110 people died in Mecca's Grand Mosque when a crane working on an expansion project collapsed during a storm. There have also been fires at two separate hotels housing pilgrims, injuring a number of foreign pilgrims.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who chairs the kingdom's haj committee, ordered a probe into yesterday's disaster during a meeting with senior officials responsible for the pilgrimage in Mina, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline 'Over 700 killed in haj stampede near Mecca'. Print Edition | Subscribe