Saudi religious leader denounces 'lies' after haj tragedy

Iranian soldiers carry the coffins of victims killed during the haj stampede. REUTERS

RIYADH (AFP) - A senior Saudi religious leader on Friday denounced "lies" being spread about the kingdom after more than 1,350 people died in tragedies that struck this year's pilgrimage.

In his first major remarks touching on the Sept 24 haj stampede, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais urged people to remember the efforts Saudi Arabia has made to take care of Muslim pilgrims.

"The efforts of the kingdom will not be undermined by the talk of the slanderers that only know to spread lies," Sudais said during weekly prayers at the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site.

The mosque was the scene of a construction crane collapse on Sept 11 which killed at least 108 people, many of them foreign pilgrims, just before haj.

Less than two weeks later, the stampede occurred during a haj stoning ritual at Mina, near Mecca.

Data from 29 countries, mostly from official sources, give a total of 1,358 dead in the stampede, far in excess of the Saudi figure of 769 killed.

"It is not the right of anyone or any entity to use these events to blame or spread rumours against the great efforts exerted by the kingdom", Sudais said, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival and the country which reported the highest stampede death toll, has been the most critical.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed "improper measures" and "mismanagement" for the disaster, the worst in 25 years at the haj.

Iran said 464 of its citizens were killed.

The pilgrimage - which this year drew about two million faithful - had been largely incident-free for nine years after safety improvements and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure investment.

A formal Saudi inquiry is under way into the stampede.

After the collapse of the crane, which was working on an expansion of the Grand Mosque, King Salman ordered prosecutors to prepare an indictment.

The king, whose official title is "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina, also took immediate steps including suspending the developer from new public contracts.

Between 1975 and 2006, at least 2,972 people died in fires and stampedes related to the haj.

In the worst single incident, 1,426 pilgrims were killed during a stampede at Mina in 1990.

1,358 died in haj disaster: Foreign data

Saudi Arabia has yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of the 769 Muslim pilgrims it says died in the Sept 24 haj stampede, but many countries have announced the deaths of citizens.

The death toll given below by foreign officials and media is now 1,358 - well in excess of the Saudi figure.

Iran: 464 dead

Egypt: 165 dead

Indonesia: 120 dead

India: 101 dead

Nigeria: 99 dead

Pakistan: 76 dead

Mali: 60 dead

Senegal: 54 dead

Sudan: 30 dead

Niger: 28 dead

Algeria: 28 dead

Morocco: 27 dead

Cameroon: 20 dead

Ivory Coast: 14 dead

Ethiopia: 13 dead

Chad: 11 dead

Libya: 10 dead

Somalia: 8 dead

Kenya: 6 dead

Ghana: 5 dead

Mauritius: 5 dead

Tanzania: 4 dead

Tunisia: 4 dead

Burkina Faso: 1 dead

Burundi: 1 dead

Netherlands: 1 dead

Oman: 1 dead

Jordan: 1 dead

Iraq: 1 dead

Benin: unspecified number of deaths

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