- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

MINA, Saudi Arabia — Thousands of Muslim pilgrims rushing to complete a symbolic stoning ritual during the hajj tripped over luggage yesterday, causing a crush in which at least 345 persons were killed despite Saudi attempts to prevent stampedes that have marred the annual event.

The stampede occurred as tens of thousands of pilgrims headed toward al-Jamarat, a series of three pillars representing the devil that the faithful pelt with stones to purge themselves of sin.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said 345 persons were killed. State-run Saudi television Al-Ekhbariyah said most of the victims were from South Asia. More than 1,000 people were injured, a doctor with the Saudi Red Crescent said.

Footage from the scene showed lines of bodies laid out on stretchers on the pavement and covered with sheets.

“The bodies were piled up. I couldn’t count them, they were too many,” said Suad Abu Hamada, an Egyptian pilgrim.

The site is a notorious bottleneck for the massive crowds that attend the annual hajj pilgrimage and has seen deadly stampedes in the past, including one in 1990 that killed 1,426 persons and another in February 2004 that killed 244. Seven of the past 17 pilgrimages have seen deadly incidents at al-Jamarat.

This year’s hajj also was marred by the Jan. 5 collapse of a building in Mecca being used as a hotel for pilgrims. A total of 76 persons were killed.

The stampede happened as pilgrims were rushing to complete the last of three days of the stoning ritual before sunset, the Interior Ministry spokesman said. Some of the pilgrims began tripping over dropped baggage, causing a large pileup.

Many pilgrims carry their personal effects with them as they move between the various stages of the hajj.

The pillars are located on a large pedestrian bridge, the width of an eight-lane highway over the desert plain of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca. Four ramps lead up the bridge to give pilgrims access to the site, and the stampede occurred at the base of one ramp.

Saudi authorities replaced the small round pillars with short walls to allow more people to throw their stones without jostling for position. The walls extend down through the bridge and protrude underneath, so pilgrims below can also carry out the stoning without going above.

Officials also recently widened the bridge, built extra ramps and increased the time in which pilgrims can carry out the rite — which traditionally takes place from midday until sunset.

Shi’ite Muslim clerics have issued religious edicts allowing pilgrims to start the ritual in the morning, and many Shi’ites from Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Lebanon and Pakistan took advantage to go early in the day.

But Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim clerics, who follow the fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, encouraged pilgrims to stick to the midday rule.

Many pilgrims had already finished the stoning ritual yesterday and had gone back to Mecca to make a farewell circuit around the Kaaba, the black stone cube that Muslims face when they do their daily prayers.

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