Saudi Arabian Hajj stampede death toll rises

Saudi official says 769 people died in Thursday’s Hajj stampede, as top religious leader backs state’s response.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Saudi Arabia's crown prince: "You are not responsible for what happened" [AP]

The death toll from Thursday’s stampede during a Hajj ritual outside of Mecca has risen to 769, Saudi Arabia’s health minister has said.

At a press conference on Saturday, Khalid al-Falih also said the number of people injured during the crush in the tent city of Mina while on their way to perform a ritual on the first day of Eid had risen to 934.

Earlier, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader has said that the stampede, the worst disaster in a quarter-century to strike the annual event, was beyond human control.

Saudi Arabia orders probe into deadly Hajj stampede

The country drew fierce criticism from regional rival Iran over its handling of pilgrims’ safety. Tehran says at least 131 of its citizens died in the disaster.

“You are not responsible for what happened”, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in a meeting in Mina on Friday, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Saturday.

“As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable,” the sheikh told the prince, who is also minister of interior.

Bin Nayef chairs the Saudi Hajj committee and has ordered an investigation into Thursday’s stampede during a symbolic “stoning of the devil” ritual by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at Jamarat Bridge in Mina, just outside the holy city of Mecca.

King Salman, whose official title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina, also ordered “a revision” of how the Hajj is organised.

On Saturday, groups of pilgrims were moving from early morning towards Jamarat Bridge for the last of three stoning days.

The interior ministry has said it assigned 100,000 police to secure the Hajj and manage crowds.

But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the flow of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in searing temperatures.

Abdullah al-Sheikh, chairman of the Shura Council, an appointed body which advises the government, stressed that pilgrims must stick to “the rules and regulations taken by the security personnel… In doing so, they protect their lives, their security and facilitate their performing of the rituals.”

Health Minister Khaled al-Falih earlier made similar remarks that faulted the worshippers.

‘Biased campaigns’

In comments carried late Friday by SPA, the Shura chairman called on citizens and Muslims to ignore “the biased campaigns carried out by the enemies of this pure country, to question the great efforts exerted by the kingdom to serve the holy sites, their construction and expansion, and to serve the visitors and pilgrims.”

Crush toll given by foreign officials and media so far:
– Algeria: 4 dead
– Benin: deaths confirmed but number unspecified
– Burundi: 1 dead
– Cameroon: at least 20 dead
– Chad: 11 dead
– Egypt: 14 dead
– India: 18 dead
– Indonesia: 3 dead
– Iran: 131 dead
– Kenya: 3 dead
– Morocco: 87 dead, according to Moroccan media
– Netherlands: 1 dead
– Niger: at least 19 dead
– Nigeria: 3 dead
– Pakistan: 11 dead
– Senegal: 5 dead
– Somalia: 8 dead, according to media reports
– Tanzania: 4 dead
Source: AFP

Riyadh’s regional rival Iran said 131 of its nationals were among the victims, and on Friday stepped up its criticism of the kingdom, demanding that affected countries have a role in the Saudi investigation into the disaster.

“Saudi Arabia is incapable of organising the pilgrimage,” said Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, leading the main weekly prayers in Tehran.

“The running of the Hajj must be handed over to Islamic states,” he said.

Several African countries confirmed deaths in the stampede, as did India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Netherlands. Moroccan media gave 87 nationals killed.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari urged King Salman “to ensure a comprehensive and thorough exercise that will identify any flaws in Hajj organisation”.

Buhari said his country had lost a prominent journalist, a professor “and others” in the tragedy.

Largely incident-free for nine years after safety improvements, this year’s Hajj was afflicted by double tragedy.

Days before it started, a construction crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 109 people including many foreigners.

Source: AFP