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Death toll in Hajj stampede rises to 363

Saturday, January 14, 2006

MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Pilgrims who ignored instructions to leave behind baggage and others who joined the rituals illegally, swelling the huge crowds, caused the stampede that killed 363 people during the Islamic hajj pilgrimage, Saudi authorities said Friday.

The Interior Ministry defended the performance of security forces, saying they intervened within minutes and saved lives when the disaster occurred Thursday at al-Jamarat, a giant platform where three pillars representing the devil are located. Pilgrims pelt the pillars with stones in a symbolic purging of their sins.

Some 600,000 pilgrims were squeezed in at the main eastern entrance ramp to the platform when about a dozen people stumbled over baggage, tripping others behind them, ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told reporters.

Saudi Arabia appeared eager to avert criticism that it has not done enough to prevent stampedes that have plagued the stoning ritual over the past two decades.

Next week, Saudi authorities will begin tearing down the current platform and building a new four-level one with more access ramps to accommodate the millions of pilgrims, al-Turki said. The new platform is to be finished within two years.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz called on Saudi clerics to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, allowing pilgrims to carry out the stoning before noon to spread out the crowds, a change in a centuries-old tradition.

"The number of pilgrims is only going to increase in the coming years, so there must be solutions so that this sort of incident is not repeated," Prince Nayef said, adding that a commission would study the accident and make recommendations.

"Those who know the facts know the security forces prevented many things that could have taken more lives," he said.

Al-Turki said security forces "were alerted to the incident immediately once it was seen through observation cameras, and moved in within two minutes."

The cause of the stampede "can be linked to the dynamics of the crowds," al-Turki said, giving journalists a detailed analysis of the stampede, complete with security camera footage of the pilgrims and computer images of the platform.

Many people ignored police requests that they leave their baggage at a separate site nearby.

"So we see a lot of umbrellas and other belongings. This leads to a great deal of stumbling among the pilgrims," al-Turki said.

The stoning ritual lasts for three days, and most pilgrims stay in a tent city erected in the surrounding desert valley of Mina.

On Thursday, many were heading directly from the stoning back to nearby Mecca to finish the hajj, and some carried their belongings. Others had sacks of food and water for the long, hot day.

A huge number of unregistered pilgrims also increased the size of the crowds, al-Turki said. The official count for this year's hajj was around 2.3 million pilgrims, but the unregistered participants likely brought it to more than 3 million.

Saudi Arabia sets a quota for each Islamic country to send 1,000 pilgrims per 1 million in population. Saudi citizens and foreigners living in the kingdom must also register for the hajj, and they are limited to around 750,000.

But hundreds of thousands join illegally. Some are Saudis and residents, others are foreigners who came late last year to perform the umra, or lesser pilgrimage, and overstayed their visas to also do the hajj.

Security forces set up checkpoints around Mecca and Medina to check for registration and turn away illegal pilgrims, but many elude the measures.

Pilgrims from abroad are required to come in organized tours, which provide them with identification armbands. Al-Turki said many of those who died Thursday did not have armbands, suggesting they were illegal pilgrims.

The 203 dead identified so far included 44 Indians, 37 Pakistanis, 18 Saudis, 11 Bangladeshis, 10 Egyptians and others from around the world.

Further complicating crowd control are traditions dictating the stoning must begin after midday prayers.

Shiite Muslim clerics have issued fatwas saying the ritual may start in the morning, and some Sunni clerics have followed suit. But others -- particularly Saudi clerics following the strict Wahhabi version of Islam -- have insisted on the noon start.

The massive crowd of pilgrims had gathered at the entrance ramp on Thursday just before midday, al-Turki said.

"At first they're not moving. But once the call to prayer comes, they start to move all at once," forcing some people to quickly pick up their bags and others to drop whatever is in their hands, he said.

The pilgrims then rush to finish by sunset so they can return to Mecca, giving a window of only a few hours for hundreds of thousands of people to perform the ritual.

Prince Nayef, considered a religious conservative, called on clerics to change the rules. "It is highly necessary that our scholars inside the kingdom and outside make rules from the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to allow pilgrims to throw stones for a longer time," he said.

But that may not be easy.

"These are God's words coming in the verses of the Quran, no one can alter them," said Ahmed Saif, a lecturer at Imam Saudi University in Riyadh, a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism.


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