- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — A building used as a hostel by pilgrims in Islam’s holiest city collapsed yesterday as millions of Muslims converged for the annual hajj. The Interior Ministry said at least 20 persons were killed and 59 injured.

The Interior Ministry statement, quoting Maj. Gen. Saad al-Tweijery, head of Mecca’s civil defense team, said the casualty figures could increase substantially.

A civil defense official told government-run Al-Ekhbariya television that the 40-year-old building’s foundation was cracked and too weak to support its weight.

At the scene, another Interior Ministry official, Brig. Khaled Zahouni, said 59 injured persons were pulled from the rubble of the Lulu’at al-Khair outside the Grand Mosque.

The eight-story building collapsed as pilgrims returned to their lodgings after midday prayers.

Most of the victims were Arabs from Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, security officials said. Al-Ekhbariya reported that many of the casualties were Indonesian.

The building, which housed a grocery store and restaurant on the ground floor and was rented out as a hostel during pilgrimages, is about 60 yards from the Grand Mosque at the Bab al-Salam, or Gate of Peace. It is surrounded by local markets that stay open 24 hours during the pilgrimage, a major source of income in the holy city.

The courtyard of the Grand Mosque encloses the Kaaba, a large stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers.

Talha al-Nizi, a Tunisian guide for pilgrims, said his group had just finished their midday prayers and returned to their hotel next to the Lulu’at al-Khair at about 1:10 p.m.

“As I moved to step into my hotel, the whole building collapsed in front of my eyes. The whole street was full of dust,” said Mr. al-Nizi, who used his mobile phone to capture video and still images of the collapse.

Rescue teams used three cranes and two bulldozers to remove large blocks of concrete, and jackhammers broke apart smaller pieces. Victims, some of them dead, were being pulled from the rubble.

Qassim Bashir, an Indian who works at a hospital in Jiddah, the nearest city, said hundreds of doctors and other medics were brought to the scene to assist the rescue and recovery efforts.

The wounded were being taken to hospitals in Mecca and Jiddah, about 40 miles east of Mecca.

The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, where the Grand Mosque is central to the Muslim faith and the hajj. Daily prayers also are conducted in the mosque’s marble-paved yard, which can hold thousands of people.

Islam’s five pillars require followers to profess that there is one God with Muhammad as His prophet, pray five times daily, give alms, fast daily during the holy month of Ramadan and, if financially able, travel to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

The hajj begins Sunday.

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