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Pilgrims celebrate feast amid tragedy, new fire today

April 17, 1997

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Muslims returned to the plains around Mecca today for the final stages of their annual pilgrimage, marred by a fire that killed at least 343 people. Officials said a new fire broke out today but was extinguished within a half-hour.

Civil defense authorities said the fire was in the same encampment as the first blaze on Tuesday. There were no reports of casualties, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Saudi officials say at least 343 people were killed in Tuesday’s fire. Nearly 1,300 were injured, many critically, and the death toll was expected to rise.

Today’s fire occurred to the west of the site devastated two days earlier. Most of the pilgrims were still performing rites, and only a few were in the camp when the fire broke out. The officials would not say which nationalities were housed in the camp.

Some of the 2 million Muslim pilgrims streaming into Mina today were already torn between carrying out the rituals of the pilgrimage and seeking news of friends and relatives missing in Tuesday’s fire.

``I should have nothing but Allah on my mind, but how can I forget my wife? I haven’t seen her for three days,″ said Qadr-Dan Mohammed, one of dozens of Pakistanis lined up in front of his country’s hajj mission.

He said he hadn’t eaten or slept since he was separated from his wife during Tuesday’s fire. Driven by high wind, the blaze tore through the overcrowded encampment of canvas tents in Mina. Many of the victims were crushed when thousands of pilgrims fled.

On Wednesday the annual Muslim hajj went forward, with 2 million pilgrims praying at Mount Arafat. Today they headed back to Mina for the Feast of Sacrifice or Eid al-Adha, which lasts three days.

Arif Mahmoud had been standing in front of the Pakistani mission for eight hours trying to get information on his 70-year-old aunt. As soon as he saw the smoke and flames that engulfed the complex of tens of thousands of tents Tuesday, he ran back, but he couldn’t find her.

``Everyone was running the other way and I got caught in the crowd,″ Mahmoud said. ``I never saw my aunt again, and I don’t know what to do,″ he said, wiping away tears.

As many as 60 Pakistanis were believed to have died in the fire, but by midday today only 16 had been identified, the Pakistani consulate in Jiddah said.

The fire was centered around a part of the tent camp housing Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The Indian Embassy said that more than 100 Indians were believed to have been killed.

A small gas cooking stove of the type used by many of the pilgrims is believed to be the origin of the fire. Witnesses said they heard two explosions in rapid succession and then saw flames leaping from tent to tent.

On Wednesday the heavy stench of fire still hung in the air. Scorched wooden tent poles and charred canvas littered the ground. Saudi workers cleaned away blackened generators, stoves and other debris left by the fire.

Before they returned to Mina, the pilgrims, wearing simple white robes to signify equality, poured into Mecca to pray at the Kaaba, a cubic stone structure at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque that Muslims revere as their most sacred shrine.

They stopped on the way for the symbolic ``stoning of the devil″ ceremony, in which they cast pebbles at an ancient brick pillar.

Back in Mina, the pilgrims concluded the pilgrimage by slaughtering sheep, cows and camels for Eid al-Adha. The feast commemorates the slaughter of a ram by the biblical Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic, in place of his son.

The hajj is required of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

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