Once Again, Deaths Haunt Muslims' Hajj

Some of the victims had sat to rest on an elevated walkway in the 100-degree heat while waiting to begin the ritual. They were trampled from behind by fellow pilgrims when word came that the group could move forward. Others were knocked off the walkway and fell 17 feet to their deaths, witnesses said.

"If security forces had not intervened to stop the rush, thousands of pilgrims would have died," a Mecca police official said.

A doctor who saw the stampede said that up to 600,000 pilgrims were waiting for police to open the walkway so they could cast their stones at the devil.

Saudi officials said at least 30 pilgrims suffered injuries, including cuts and broken bones. Police and doctors said those killed were from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Middle East.

The stampede took place in the desert plain at Mina, about 3 miles from Mecca. To shield themselves from the sun, pilgrims had covered their heads with towels or carried umbrellas, some inscribed with the phrase "God is great."

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and Saudi television showed soldiers carrying a body out on a stretcher. One soldier was trying to revive another casualty whose face was covered by an oxygen mask.

Hundreds of pilgrims lined up outside Mina hospitals Thursday night, anxious to know the fate of their relatives.

Among them was Ziad Daher from Syria, who was looking for his brother Farouk.

"I lost him in the crowd about 12 noon," he said while crying. "I haven't seen him since."

It was the latest tragedy to befall the hajj, which has been marred by other stampedes, fires and political protests that turned violent.

Saudi Arabia has invested millions to improve security for the increasing number of Muslims who make the pilgrimage. The hajj is required of all Muslims at least once in a lifetime if they can afford it, and some 2.3 million are in Mecca this year.

The pilgrims were preparing for a ritual known as stoning the devil, in which they hurl pebbles at three pillars symbolizing the temptations of Satan. Saudi officials say Asian Muslims tend not to believe in a symbolic throw and rush to get close enough for their pebbles to strike the pillars.

Last year, fires driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city at Mina, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500.

Source : http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1998-04-10/news/9804100113_1_hajj-mecca-pilgrims

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