Monday, February 2, 2004

MINA, Saudi Arabia — At least 244 persons were trampled to death and hundreds were hurt yesterday under a crush of worshippers in one of the deadliest disasters during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The stampede occurred during the stoning of the devil, an emotional and notoriously perilous hajj ritual. Pilgrims frantically throw rocks, shout insults or hurl their shoes at three stone pillars — acts that are supposed to demonstrate deep disdain for Satan.

Safety measures were in place at the site — where fatal stampedes have been frequent — but “caution isn’t stronger than fate,” said Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani. “All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God’s will.”

The stampede broke out on one of two ramps leading to the 50-foot stone pillars. Tens of thousands of people were on the uppermost ramp, which is about the width of a five-lane highway.

Authorities said a few pilgrims fell, causing panic as pressure built up in the crowd behind.

Brig. Mansour al-Turki of the Saudi General Security Forces said about 10,000 general security officers were on duty in the area at the time.

Their intervention “resulted in containing the pushing toward the pillar to prevent more pilgrims from falling,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported, quoting an unidentified Interior Ministry official.

The area was the scene of similar deadly incidents in 1998, 2001 and last year.

The incident yesterday marked the worst disaster during the hajj since 1997, when 340 pilgrims died in a fire at the tent city in Mina, near Mecca.

Most of the dead yesterday were pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia who may not have been authorized to participate, Mr. Madani said. It was not clear how many foreign pilgrims died, but Egypt’s Middle East News Agency reported that 13 Egyptians were among the dead.

Mr. Madani also said 272 pilgrims had died of natural causes during the hajj. Many participants are elderly, and Muslims believe that if a person dies while performing the pilgrimage he or she will go directly to heaven.

About 2 million Muslims are participating in the pilgrimage this year. To control the crowd, Saudi authorities set quotas for pilgrims from each country. They also required the kingdom’s citizens and residents to register upon arrival.

Many resident foreigners, especially those from the Indian subcontinent, cannot afford to pay the cost of an authorized pilgrimage, abound $530, and perform it independently despite the registration requirement.

The chaos came after a sleepless night of prayer at the climax of the hajj, when pilgrims from around the world listened to Saudi Arabia’s top cleric at the Namira mosque.

They prayed at dawn and then gathered pebbles to throw at the pillars. Each participant throws seven times, chanting “bismillah” (“in the name of God”) and “Allahu akbar” (“God is Great”).

Calling America “the greatest Satan,” Egyptian pilgrim Youssef Omar threw pebbles at one pillar on which someone had scrawled “USA.”

After the 1998 hajj, when about 180 pilgrims were trampled to death, religious authorities issued an edict extending the amount of time in which pilgrims could complete the ritual, hoping to spread out the crowd.

A giant ramp leading to the pillars fills with pilgrims waiting to throw the pebbles, and Saudi authorities instruct pilgrims in several languages when and where to pass.

Nonetheless, 14 pilgrims were trampled to death during the ritual last year, and 35 died in a 2001 stampede.

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