Saudi Arabia to shorten haj stoning after deadly stampede

Pakistani haj pilgrims wait for transport before leaving for the annual haj pilgrimage to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia on Aug 23, 2016.
Pakistani haj pilgrims wait for transport before leaving for the annual haj pilgrimage to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia on Aug 23, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (AFP) - A stoning ritual which led to the deaths of about 2,300 people during last year's haj will be more tightly controlled during next month's pilgrimage, Saudi newspapers reported on Wednesday (Aug 24).

The period during which pilgrims can perform the Jamarat ritual will be reduced by 12 hours, the Saudi Gazette and Arab News said.

The symbolic stoning of the devil will be performed as usual over three days beginning Sept 11 at Mina, about 5km east of Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site.

But this year there will be no stoning allowed from 6am to 10.30am on the first day, from 2pm to 6pm on the second day and from 10.30am to 2pm on the final day, the haj ministry said.

"This procedure will enable the pilgrims to throw stones easily and will prevent any stampede that may result from overcrowding," the Saudi Gazette quoted ministry undersecretary Hussain al-Sharif as saying.

He did not elaborate on how the new time restrictions would reduce the potential for overcrowding.

The stampede was the worst disaster in haj history.

It occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge, a structure resembling a huge parking garage which hosts the stoning ritual and cost more than US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) to build.

It is almost 1km long and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

Pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the flow of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in searing temperatures.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister who also chairs the haj committee, ordered a probe immediately after the disaster but there has been no word on its findings.

However, officials have announced a number of safety measures including the revised stoning schedules.

At least 2,297 pilgrims died during the stampede on Sept 24, according to data from foreign officials, some of whom expressed concerns about difficulty in identifying the victims.

Saudi Arabia issued a death toll of 769.

In another crowd control move, pilgrims are not allowed to circumambulate the holy Kaaba one hour before or after regular prayers at the Grand Mosque when they begin their haj, Saudi Gazette and Arab News said.

This year's pilgrimage begins on Sept 9 but hundreds of thousands have already arrived from around the world.

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