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At Least 150 Reported Dead at Hajj

April 10, 1998

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Muslims rushing to fulfill a ritual known as ``stoning the devil″ set off a huge stampede Thursday that reportedly killed more than 150 pilgrims, many of them elderly, on the last day of the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj.

Some of the victims had sat down to rest on an elevated walkway in the 100-degree heat while waiting to begin the ritual. They were trampled from behind by fellow pilgrims when word came that the group could move forward. Others were knocked off the walkway and fell 17 feet to their deaths, witnesses said.

``If security forces had not intervened to stop the rush, thousands of pilgrims would have died,″ a Mecca police official said on condition of anonymity.

A doctor who saw the stampede told The Associated Press that up to 600,000 pilgrims were waiting for police to open the walkway so they could cast their stones. Another doctor said an elderly Moroccan woman was trampled so heavily that her head was crushed.

Saudi officials said at least 30 pilgrims suffered injuries, including cuts and broken bones. Police and doctors said those killed were from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Mideast.

The stampede took place in the desert plain at Mina, about three miles from Mecca. To shield themselves from the sun, pilgrims had covered their heads with towels or carried umbrellas, some inscribed with the phrase ``God is great.″

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and Saudi television showed soldiers carrying a body out on a stretcher. One soldier was trying to revive another casualty whose face was covered by an oxygen mask. Another offered water to an elderly man, who grabbed the bottle with a trembling hand.

Hundreds of pilgrims lined up outside Mina hospitals Thursday night, anxious to know the fate of their relatives.

Among them was Ziad Daher from Syria, who was looking for his brother Farouk. ``I lost him in the crowd about 12 noon,″ he said, tears in his eyes. ``I haven’t seen him since.″

It was the latest tragedy to befall the hajj, which has been bloodied by other stampedes, fires and political protests that turned violent.

Saudi Arabia has invested millions to improve security for the increasing number of Muslims who make the pilgrimage. The hajj is required of all Muslims at least once in a lifetime if they can afford it, and some 2.3 million are in Mecca this year.

The pilgrims were preparing for a ritual known as ``stoning the devil,″ in which they hurl pebbles at three pillars symbolizing the temptations of Satan. Saudi officials say Asian Muslims tend not to believe in a symbolic throw and rush to get close enough for their pebbles to strike the pillars.

Saudi officials said on condition of anonymity that the death toll was more than 150. The official Saudi Press Agency said 118 died, including 11 who died later in hospitals.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said President and Mrs. Clinton were shocked and saddened to learn of the accident.

Last year, fires driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city at Mina, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500.

In 1994, 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesians, were killed in a similar stampede during the stoning of the devil ritual.

In the hajj’s worst tragedy, 1,426 pilgrims, many of them Malaysians, Indonesian and Pakistanis, were killed in 1990 in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

The number of persons making the hajj has multiplied many times over in recent decades, taxing facilities to the limit.

Before World War II, when most pilgrims still came by desert caravan, the number at the hajj was as few as 10,000. Buses and airplanes _ as well as rising wealth in the Muslim world _ have enabled millions to converge on Mecca for the pilgrimage.

The Saudis have sought to limit the crowds. Since 1987, they have enforced a quota that allows just 0.1 percent of each country’s Muslim population to make the hajj. Some Muslims complain they must wait for years for permits.

Thousands of Saudi police are assigned to guard the pilgrimage routes and scores of government volunteers move with the pilgrims to assist them.

Saudi authorities set up 6,000 hospital beds this year and called in more than 10,000 doctors to attend to the sick. Dozens of first aid workers rode motorbikes to provide emergency help.

Before the stampede, helicopters had been circling Mina to try to spot pilgrims overcome by the heat. Workers threw small bags of chilled water from trucks to those making their way to the pillars.

Update hourly