Over 700 Hajj pilgrims killed in stampede | Daily News

Over 700 Hajj pilgrims killed in stampede

Deadliest Hajj crush since 2006
The annual Hajj prayers organised by the Memon Association of  Sri Lanka were held at the Galle Face Green last morning. Picture by  Saman Sri Wedage

At least 717 people have been crushed to death and around 863 hurt in a stampede of pilgrims in one of the worst incidents in years to hit the Muslim Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's civil defence service said rescue operations were under way after the stampede in Mina, where almost two million pilgrims were taking part in the last major rite of the Hajj.

Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies - the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during Hajj - lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.

Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area, placing victims on stretchers and desperately trying to resuscitate others.

In the past, the pilgrimage was for years marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements. Preparations for this year's Hajj were marred when on September 11 a construction crane collapsed at Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, killing 109 people.

A medic performs CPR on a Muslim after a stampede killed and injured hundreds of pilgrims in the holy city of Mina during the Hajj pilgrimage.

In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.

Thursday's ritual was taking place at a five-storey structure known as the Jamarat Bridge, which cost more than $1billion to build and was used during earlier pilgrimages.

Almost one kilometre long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

The faithful had gathered until dawn Thursday at nearby Muzdalifah where they chose their pebbles and stored them in empty water bottles.

It was not immediately clear if the stoning ritual at Mina would continue as planned until Saturday after the stampede.

Yesterday, they had spent a day of prayer on a vast Saudi plain and Mount Arafat, a rocky hill about 10 kilometres from Mina, for the peak of the Hajj pilgrimage.

The flow of exhausted pilgrims was so big that Saudi security forces had to form a human chain along the roads of the vast Arafat plain while a jets of water were sprayed on the huge crowds to keep them cool amid searing heat.

This year's gathering is about the same size as last year's, with 1.4 million foreign pilgrims joining hundreds of thousands of Saudis and residents of the kingdom.

Islam requires all able-bodied Muslims to perform the Hajj once in a lifetime - and each year huge crowds are drawn to Mecca to carry out a series of rituals and prayers aimed at erasing past sins.

Pictures yesterday show newly-arrived pilgrims circling the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped structure in Mecca's Grand Mosque toward which all Muslims pray.

Saudi authorities deploy 100,000 police and vast numbers of stewards to ensure safety and help those who lose their way. They have also invested in expensive infrastructure, including a new urban railway, to ferry pilgrims around safely.

It comes just weeks after a crane toppled into Mecca's Grand Mosque killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds more.

The crane which collapsed during a thunderstorm was one of several working on a multi-billion-dollar expansion of the mosque to accommodate mounting numbers of faithful.

Despite the tragedy, Saudi officials quickly vowed that the Hajj to Mecca would go ahead with thousands descending on the city.