– At least 717 Muslim pilgrims died Thursday in a haj crush in Saudi Arabia, authorities said, as condolences poured in from around the world.
The stampede, the worst tragedy during the annual pilgrimage in more than two decades, occurred at 0900 am local time (0600 GMT) during a stone-throwing ritual in the holy town of Mina near Mecca
At least 863 people have also been wounded.
Health Minister Khaled al-Faleh suggested that the stampede had resulted from pilgrims’ failure to observe instructions related to the congregational stone-throwing ritual.
“Some pilgrims moved without following the plans of dividing pilgrims into groups as previously drawn up by security agencies. They ignored instructions,” he said in Mina.
“We’ll carry out urgent investigations.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif held a crisis meeting with senior security officials and ordered a committee set up to investigate the tragedy, the deadliest in the haj since 1990.
The stampede occurred at an intersection on one of the two routes leading to a multilevel structure known as the Jamarat, where the pilgrims cast pebbles in a symbolic stoning of the devil, the Civil Defence said.
Spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mansour al-Turki, said the exact cause of the incident was still unclear.
“The street where the incident occurred had not seen before the large numbers of pilgrims of this year,” al-Turki told reporters in Mecca.
He pledged to make public findings of the inquiry into the incident once it is completed.
Some survivors were able to give their accounts of the incident.
One of them is Mohammed, a male pilgrim, who survived with minor injuries.
“Walking with other pilgrims towards the Jamarat building, I was surprised by a sudden halt to the trek,” he told Saudi news website Sabq.
“In few minutes, there were increasing pushes from other groups behind us. Then a severe stampede occurred, causing women in the crowd to cry loudly. I suffered different injuries after falling under the feet of other pilgrims,” Mohammed added at a Mina hospital where he is staying for treatment.
TV footage showed the bodies of pilgrims, clad in the white seamless pieces of cloth worn during the haj, being carried on stretchers to ambulances.
Saudi authorities did not identify the nationalities of the victims.
According to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV, most of the dead were elderly people and women.
They were from different countries, the broadcaster said, without giving details.
Iran said at least 41 of its citizens were among the dead.
Tehran, a regional rival of Saudi Arabia, blamed the Saudis for the disaster.
“The Saudis blocked a part of the pilgrimage route for no reason, which led to the crush and ultimately to the tragedy,” charged Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs and national security committee, according to a report from the Fars news agency.
The Iranian pilgrimage department also accused the Saudis of a lack of coordination.
There was no comment in Riyadh.
The haj is one of the world’s largest congregations.
Nearly 2 million pilgrims participated in the symbolic stoning of the devil, a major ritual in the five-day annual haj, which started Tuesday.
The incident came three weeks after a construction crane collapsed in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 108 people.
The desert valley of Mina, 10 kilometres east of Mecca, has seen deadly stampedes in recent years, prompting the oil-rich kingdom to spend lavishly to boost safety standards during the stone-throwing ritual.
In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede inside a Mina tunnel after the ventilation system broke down.
In 2006, 364 pilgrims were crushed to death during the stone-throwing ritual.
In the wake of the 2006 tragedy, the Saudi authorities built additional floors to the Jamarat building to ease crowding and barred pilgrims from moving in opposite directions in the site.
Muslims are expected to perform the pilgrimage, one of Islam’s five pillars, at least once during their lifetimes if they have the financial and physical means to do so.