MECCA • The Saudi authorities are investigating a construction crane collapse that killed at least 107 people during a storm at Mecca's Grand Mosque, pledging that the annual haj pilgrimage would go ahead.
More than 200 others were hurt and panic broke out as the massive crane crashed down on the mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, as worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have already arrived in Mecca for the haj, which is expected to start on Sept 21. It is one of the world's largest religious festivals and drew two million worshippers last year.
A Saudi official said this year's haj will proceed despite the tragedy.
"It definitely will not affect the haj this season and the affected part will probably be fixed in a few days," the official, who declined to be named, said yesterday.
Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-populated nation, said two of its nationals were killed, while Malaysia said 10 of its nationals were hurt and eight were unaccounted for.
As world leaders offered their condolences, the governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, ordered an investigation into the incident.
Mr Abdel Aziz Naqoor, who said he works at the mosque, told Agence France-Presse that he saw the massive construction crane fall during the storm.
"If it weren't for Al-Tawaf bridge, the injuries and deaths would have been worse," he said, referring to a covered walkway that surrounds the holy Kaaba, which broke the crane's fall.
The Kaaba is a massive cube-shaped structure at the centre of the mosque towards which Muslims worldwide pray.
Pictures of the incident on Twitter showed bloodied bodies strewn across a courtyard where the top part of the crane, which appeared to have bent or snapped, had crashed into the building, which is several storeys high.
A video on YouTube showed people screaming and rushing around right after a massive crash was heard. The wreckage of the red and white crane was seen lying across the floor of the mosque, where chunks of the floor had been gouged out.
Several other cranes towered over the site.
The Grand Mosque is usually at its most crowded on Fridays, the Muslim weekly day of prayer.
Many worshippers would have been gathered there ahead of evening maghrib prayers, which were held about an hour after the tragedy occurred.
Mr Ahmed Mohammad Aal-Mansoori, a spokesman for the mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency as saying that part of a crane collapsed "as a result of strong winds and heavy rains".
Mr Irfan Al-Alawi, the co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, compared the carnage with that caused by a bomb. He suggested that the authorities had been negligent by having a series of cranes overlooking the mosque.
"They do not care about the heritage, and they do not care about health and safety," he said.
It is not the first time tragedy has struck Mecca pilgrims.
In 2006, several hundred people were killed in a stampede during the Stoning of the Devil ritual in nearby Mina, following a similar incident two years earlier.
But the haj has become nearly incident-free in recent years because of multibillion-dollar projects.
Work is under way to expand the area of the Grand Mosque by 400,000 sq m, allowing it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at a time.