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Stampede kills 345 during hajj rite

Muslim pilgrimage faces new scrutiny

MINA, Saudi Arabia -- Pilgrims tripped over luggage in a ritual to stone the devil yesterday, causing a crush in which at least 345 people were reported to have been trampled to death.

In addition, as many as 1,000 were hurt in the latest stampede to have marred Islam's annual hajj.

Saudis have sought for years to ease the flow of huge crowds, but the tragedy underlined the difficulty in managing one of the biggest religious events in the world. This year, the hajj, a pilgrimage that is a once-in-a lifetime rite in Islam, drew more than 2 1/2 million people.

A week ago, on Jan. 5, a building being used as a pilgrims' hotel collapsed, killing 76 people in Mecca.

In the ritual, all the pilgrims must pass ''pillars" called al-Jamarat, which represent the devil and which the faithful pelt with stones to purge themselves of sin.

The site in the desert of Mina, just outside the holy city of Mecca, is a bottleneck in the weeklong pilgrimage and has seen deadly events in seven of the past 17 years, including a stampede in 1990.

In the 1990 disaster, 1,426 people were killed. In 2004, another stampede left 244 pilgrims dead.

''I heard screaming and . . . saw people jumping over each other," Suad Abu Hamada, an Egyptian pilgrim, said of the disaster yesterday. ''Police started pulling out bodies. The bodies were piled up. I couldn't count them; they were too many."

Bodies covered in white sheets lined the pavement near the ramp where the stampede occurred, and emergency workers rushed the injured away on stretchers.

Police cleared part of the site, but thousands of pilgrims continued the stoning ritual.

The Interior Ministry put the death toll at 345, and the Health Ministry said 289 people were injured. State-run Al-Ekhbariyah television said most of the victims were from South Asia.

After the 2004 stampede, Saudi officials widened ramps leading to a platform the width of an eight-lane highway where the pillars are located. They also created more emergency exits.

The pillars were replaced with 85-foot-long walls to allow more people to stone them at once, without jostling one another.

In addition, the walls were extended through the bottom of the platform so more pilgrims could carry out the stoning from below.

The stampede occurred below the platform, near one of the four big ramps. In theory, the crowds are supposed to enter the platform using two of the ramps and exit down the other two, but pilgrims often are not aware of, or ignore, the rules.

Thousands of pilgrims were rushing to complete the last of the three days of the stoning ritual before sunset, when some began to trip over dropped baggage, said Major General Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Many pilgrims carry personal belongings, such as tents, clothes and food, as they move among the stages of the hajj.

Mina General Hospital, a small facility near the al-Jamarat site, was filled with injured, and some victims had to be sent to hospitals in Mecca and Riyadh.

Many pilgrims expressed frustration over the repeated disasters at al-Jamarat.

''This should not happen every year. It should be stopped. It's a scandal. There must be a way to organize this better," said Anwar Sadiqi, a pilgrim from Pakistan.

Ensuring a smooth pilgrimage is a key concern for Saudi Arabia's royal family, which describes the kingdom as the ''custodian of the holy cities" of Mecca and Medina, where the 7th-century prophet Mohammed was born.

Saudi Arabia allows every country to send 1,000 pilgrims for every 1 million in population.

The three-day stoning ritual, in particular, is a nightmarish problem in crowd dynamics.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims must move up the ramps onto the platform, must maneuver from pillar to pillar, and must hit each with seven stones, then leave.

Many of the pilgrims are in a rush because of the time constraints on the ritual and their anxiety about stampedes.

Traditionally, stoning was carried out from midday to sunset.

Shi'ite Muslim clerics have issued edicts allowing pilgrims to do the stoning in the morning, and some Sunni clerics have followed suit. But some clerics following Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi interpretation of Islam urge the faithful to stick to the midday start.

About 60,000 Saudi police and soldiers patrolled the Mina plain once the stoning ritual began Tuesday. Helicopters flew overhead, and authorities monitored the pilgrims from a control room through closed-circuit television.

But some contended that police did little to help. ''They look indifferent. They don't carry out their duties seriously," said Iftikhar Hussein, an Iraqi. ''This looks like a garage rather than a holy site."

''If hajj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim, it should be a duty for the government" to ensure it is safe, she added.

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