A stampede killed at least 717 people and injured hundreds more at the haj in Saudi Arabia on Thursday (Sep 24), in one of the worst-ever tragedies at the annual Muslim pilgrimage.
It was the second deadly accident to hit the pilgrims this month, after a crane collapse in Mecca killed more than 100. The stampede broke out in Mina during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said.
Internet video showed bodies in piles, surrounded by discarded personal belongings and flattened water bottles. In some areas rescue workers laid bodies in long rows on stretchers, limbs protruding from beneath white sheets.
The civil defence service said that it was still counting the dead, who included pilgrims from different countries. At least 863 people were hurt, the agency said. Iran announced that 90 of its nationals were among the dead, and accused Saudi Arabia of safety errors.
King Salman ordered "a revision of the plans" for hajj organisation so that pilgrims can "carry out their rituals in complete safety", the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Nearly two million people from across the globe were attending the haj, one of the largest annual gatherings in the world.
A Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy, saying they had not followed haj rules. "Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables" set for the haj, Health Minister Khaled al-Falih told El-Ekhbariya television. "If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided."
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who chairs the kingdom's hajj committee, ordered an investigation, and King Salman said he wanted the results quickly, SPA reported.
'Tripping all over each other'
The stampede began at around 9:00am (2.00pm Singapore time), shortly after the civil defence service said on Twitter it was dealing with a "crowding" incident in Mina, about five kilometres from Mecca.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina on Thursday to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, for the last major ritual of the haj which officially ends on Sunday.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said the stampede was caused when "a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time" at an intersection of two streets in Mina.
"The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims," he said. Temperatures in Mina had reached 46 degrees Celsius on Thursday.
A Sudanese pilgrim in Mina said this year's haj was the most poorly organised of four he had attended. "People were already dehydrated and fainting" before the stampede, said the man, who declined to be named. People "were tripping all over each other", he said, adding that a Saudi companion had warned him that "something was going to happen".
After the incident helicopters patrolled overhead and ambulance sirens wailed as the injured were rushed to hospitals, AFP reporters said. At one facility, a steady stream of ambulances discharged pilgrims on stretchers.
The disaster came as the world's 1.5 billion Muslims marked Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the most important holiday on the Islamic calendar.
Two million pilgrims
It was the second major accident this year for haj pilgrims, after a construction crane collapsed on Sep 11 at Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, killing 109 people, including many foreigners.
The haj is among the five pillars of Islam, and every capable Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime. For years the pilgrimage was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements.
In the last major incident in January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual. In 1990, 1,426 mainly Asian pilgrims died in a tunnel stampede at Mina after a ventilation system failure.
Thursday's tragedy occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge, which was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than US$1 billion and intended to improve safety.
Almost one kilometre long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.
Official figures released on Thursday said 1,952,817 pilgrims had performed this year's haj, including almost 1.4 million foreigners. There was little immediate information on the nationalities of the dead, though officials in Turkey said at least 18 of its citizens were reported missing.
In Saudi Arabia's Shiite rival Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "improper measures" and "mismanagement" by Saudi authorities were responsible. "The government of Saudi Arabia must accept the huge responsibility for this catastrophe," state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
Condolences came from capitals around the region and the globe, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Washington called the stampede "heartbreaking". "We join you in mourning the tragic loss of these faithful pilgrims," said US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: "My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed at the hajj pilgrimage."
The faithful had gathered until dawn Thursday at nearby Muzdalifah where they chose their pebbles and stored them in empty water bottles. The ritual emulates the Prophet Abraham, who is said to have stoned the devil at three locations when he tried to dissuade Abraham from God's order to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
At the last moment, God spares the boy, sending a sheep to be sacrificed in his place. Muslims worldwide commemorated Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son by slaughtering cows, sheep and other animals on Thursday.
Celebrations of Eid al-Adha were also marred in neighbouring Yemen, where a suicide bomber struck a mosque in the capital Sanaa in an attack targeting Shiite worshippers. At least 25 people died in the attack claimed by the Islamic State group, which has carried out a string of bombings against Shiites in recent months.