Saudi Arabia accused of neglect over hajj disaster
Mina, Saudi Arabia – — Saudi Arabia faced new accusations of neglect Friday in the hajj disaster that killed over 700 people, the second tragedy at this year’s pilgrimage overseen by the kingdom’s rulers who base their legitimacy in part on protecting Islam’s holiest sites.
Leading the criticism was regional Shiite powerhouse Iran, which always seeks an opportunity to undermine its Sunni adversary.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in New York that at least 140 Iranians were killed. He suggested that “ineptitude” by the Saudi authorities involved in organizing the hajj was to blame for the two accidents this month that have resulted in at least 830 deaths.
In Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned a Saudi envoy for the second time in as many days to hear protests over the incident, a vice president blamed Saudi “mismanagement,” and thousands marched in the streets and denounced the Saudi royal family.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars and undertaken massive construction projects to make the annual hajj safer for the world’s Muslims, and the last serious loss of life had occurred nine years ago.
In the worst hajj disaster in a quarter century, two huge waves of pilgrims converged Thursday on a street near a religious site in Mina, and 719 people were crushed or trampled to death, while 863 were injured. That followed an accident Sept. 11 in which a storm toppled a crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that killed 111 people.
While Saudi authorities are still investigating Thursday’s accident, Health Minister Khalid al-Falih has blamed it on the masses themselves, telling a Saudi broadcaster that “some pilgrims had moved in the wrong direction amid the crowds.”
But a survivor who spoke to the Associated Press said some Saudi guards only exacerbated the stampede at Mina by refusing to open nearby gates.
The street where the incident took place is about 36 feet wide and lined with barricades, behind which are tents of hajj tour groups. Pilgrims move in one direction to and from a religious complex, where they throw stones at pillars representing the devil. On Thursday, the crowds apparently collided with each other at an intersection, the Interior Ministry said.
Survivor Mahfouz el-Taweel of Egypt told the AP he was in the crowd packed shoulder to shoulder that collided on the same street with another mass of people coming from a different direction. Those in the back were unaware of this and pressed forward, causing a crush of bodies, trampling and a stampede, el-Taweel said.
“If they had barred people from coming the other way, this would not have happened,” he said.
“I’m coming to perform the hajj, not to die,” el-Taweel added. “These people deserve compensation. It’s not just enough to say God’s will and call them martyrs.”
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