Hajj Stampede Kills At Least 345 Pilgrims

The stampede took place as the pilgrims clambered toward a massive pedestrian bridge to pelt seven pebbles at each of the three pillars representing the devil. Mina, a stretch of desert outside the holy city of Mecca, usually draws the thickest crowds of the hajj and has been the scene of similar stampedes.

Saudi authorities had widened the bridge and built extra ramps this year in hopes of easing the flow of worshipers. They had also lengthened the duration of the rite so that the pilgrims would be less frenzied.

Two million Muslims from all over the world have traveled to the Saudi holy sites this year to participate in the hajj.

All Muslims of sound body and financial ability are required to perform the pilgrimage once in their lifetime; the hajj is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.

"It's a very terrible situation. You know, today we almost died because when the accidents happened they had to stop the flow of people and the people were just pushing over each other," Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi newspaper editor who was near the scene, said in a telephone interview. "You're being pushed from behind and around."

Although banned by the Saudi government from covering the hajj, the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera aired live footage of the scene after the stampede. It showed bodies lying on the ground, covered with white sheets.

An unnamed Libyan pilgrim who said he had witnessed the stampede phoned Al Jazeera to vent his anger at security forces.

"The Saudi security personnel are to blame. They did not move in time to stop the crisis," he said. "The stampede was well underway for half an hour, and the Saudis did not do anything except shouting on the microphones, asking everyone to calm down. The rescue people or the security should have intervened earlier instead of standing far away and shouting."

A Bahraini pilgrim who called the station also blamed the Saudi authorities.

"From the beginning, I could see there was no one [from security] except the special forces," he said. "They are not trained to handle such a situation. They don't know how to deal with crowds."

Saudi officials were quick to tout the security measures they had put in place, including medical teams and police on standby, in light of past stampedes. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death in Mecca. Hundreds more have been killed in stampedes from 1994 to 2004.

Source : http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jan/13/world/fg-stampede13

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