Iranian-Saudi tensions grow over deadly haj stampede

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Cairo (dpa) – Iran on Sunday stepped up criticism of its regional rival Saudi Arabia for this week’s haj stampede in which 769 pilgrims died in the worst disaster in the annual pilgrimage in 25 years.

Iranian supreme leader Supreme leader Ali Khamenei demanded Saudi Arabia apologize for the catastrophe in which Iran says 155 of its pilgrims died.

“The Saudis, instead of shifting blame onto others and incriminating this or that, must accept their responsibility and apologize to the Islamic Ummah [nation] and their bereaved families,” Khameini said in a statement released by his office.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir hinted that Tehran is politically manipulating the incident.

“I would hope that the Iranian leaders would be more sensible and more thoughtful with regards to those who perished in this tragedy and wait until we see the results of the investigation,” al-Jubeir said, according to official Saudi Press Agency SPA.

Meanwhile, dozens of angry Iranians gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest “Riyadh’s inability to handle” the haj, the Iranian news agency Fars reported.

The protesters chanted “down with Al Saud regime,” Fars said, referring to the Saudi rulers.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has said it is investigating Thursday’s deadly crush and pledged fast results.

Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falah has suggested that the stampede, which occurred during a stone-throwing ritual in the Saudi holy town of Mina, had resulted from pilgrims’ failure to follow instructions.

The incident came almost two weeks after 108 people were killed in a construction crane collapse in the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca.

In recent days Iran has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia, accusing it of mishandling the haj.

Saudi authorities have not yet provided a breakdown of the victims of the stampede.

However, several countries, including Iran, have reported deaths among their pilgrims.

Egypt said on Sunday that 55 of its citizens had died in the disaster and 120 others were still missing.

There were 29 and 22 pilgrims among the dead from India and Indonesia respectively.

At least 18 Pakistanis died, while Algeria said seven of its citizens perished in the stampede.

Tunisia reported two deaths.

The haj, one of Islam’s five pillars, ended on Sunday.

Around 1.9 million Muslims attended this year’s haj, according to Saudi officials.

In recent years, the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been marred by deaths resulting from stampedes and fires.

In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede inside a tunnel after the ventilation system broke down.

Seven years later, 343 pilgrims were killed in a massive fire that gutted their tents in Mina, around 10 kilometres east of Mecca.

In 2006, 364 pilgrims were crushed to death during the symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina.

The oil-rich kingdom has spent lavishly to boost haj safety standards, mainly during the stone-throwing ritual.

Muslims are expected to perform the pilgrimage at least once during their lifetimes if they have the financial and physical means to do so.

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