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Flouting Rules Created Peril on Hajj, Official Says

Unsanctioned baggage and unregistered pilgrims contributed to a stampede that killed 363, Saudis say.

January 14, 2006|From Associated Press

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Muslim pilgrims who ignored instructions to leave baggage behind and others who joined the rituals illegally, swelling the huge crowds, caused the stampede that killed 363 people during the hajj, Saudi authorities said Friday.

The Interior Ministry defended the performance of security forces, saying they intervened within minutes and saved lives when the disaster occurred Thursday at Al Jamarat, a giant platform where three pillars representing the devil are located. Pilgrims throw stones at the pillars in a symbolic purging of their sins.

About 600,000 pilgrims were squeezed in at the main eastern entrance ramp to the platform when about a dozen people stumbled over baggage, tripping others behind them, ministry spokesman Mansour Turki told reporters.

Saudi authorities next week will begin tearing down the platform and building a four-level structure with more access ramps to accommodate the millions of pilgrims, Turki said.

Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz called on Saudi clerics to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, allowing pilgrims to begin the ritual earlier in the day to spread out the crowds, a change in a centuries-old tradition.

The cause of the stampede "can be linked to the dynamics of the crowds," Turki said, giving journalists a detailed analysis of the stampede, complete with security camera footage of the pilgrims and computer images of the platform.

Many people ignored police requests to leave their baggage at a separate site nearby.

"So we see a lot of umbrellas and other belongings. This leads to a great deal of stumbling among the pilgrims," Turki said.

A huge number of unregistered pilgrims also increased the size of the crowds, Turki said. The official count for this year's hajj was around 2.3 million pilgrims, but the unregistered participants probably brought it to more than 3 million.

Saudi Arabia sets a quota for each Muslim country to send 1,000 pilgrims per 1 million in population.

Saudi citizens and foreigners living in the kingdom must also register for the hajj, and they are limited to about 750,000. But hundreds of thousands join illegally.

The 203 dead identified so far included 44 Indians, 37 Pakistanis, 18 Saudis, 11 Bangladeshis and 10 Egyptians.

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