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Hundreds crushed on Haj ‘road of death’

Mena (Saudi Arabia), Jan. 12 (Reuters): At least 345 pilgrims were crushed to death today during a stoning ritual on the last day of the Haj, the worst tragedy to beset the sacred ritual in more than a decade.

“So far, the number of confirmed deaths is 345 and the number of injured in hospital is 289,” health minister Hamad bin Abdullah al-Manei told Saudi state television, adding that many had been discharged.

The pilgrims were crushed at the eastern entrance of Mena’s disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge as they jostled to perform the stoning between noon and sunset in Mena, a narrow valley near the holy city of Mecca.

“It was like the road of death there,” one pilgrim said, describing women fainting and people elbowing and pushing to get closer to the wall where pilgrims direct their stones.

Some 2.5 million Muslim are performing the Haj this year, and the death toll was the worst since 1,426 people were killed in a stampede in a tunnel in Mecca in 1990. Today’s crush intensified as many pilgrims scrambled to pick up belongings lost in the heavy crowds, officials said.

“Immediately after noon, there was severe overcrowding among the pilgrims that led to many falling and dying,” Manei said. Many pilgrims insist on following Prophet Mohammad’s example of stoning after noon prayers instead of staggering the ritual throughout the day as some clerics recommend.

Bodies covered in white shrouds littered the Jamarat area, as medics tended to the injured on stretchers. The bodies were driven away in ambulances and refrigerated trucks.

“The people who died were trying to get onto the bridge to do their stoning. But a wave of people came from the (other) direction trying to get off the bridge. That’s when people died,” said Egyptian Amr Gad.

The crush was the second disaster to hit this year’s pilgrimage. Last week, 76 people were killed when a hostel in Mecca collapsed in a narrow street.

Saudi security forces set up a tight cordon around the Jamarat Bridge to control the crowds, as many pilgrims thronged to carry on stoning three walls in a symbolic casting out of the devil and rejection of temptation.

“It (the crush) was the result of a large number of personal belongings being dropped and because large numbers of pilgrims insisted on doing the stoning in the afternoon,” the Saudi interior ministry said in a statement on state news agency SPA.

“Pilgrims fell over and crushed each other at the eastern entrance to the Jamarat,” the statement said.

The Haj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime. Many pilgrims transport their belongings from site to site, hampering the flow of pilgrims.

The pilgrimage has been marred by stampedes in the past, and some of the worst have occurred in Mena. In 2004, some 250 pilgrims were crushed to death at Jamarat Bridge. A decade earlier, 270 were killed in a similar stampede.

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