Collapse of hostel in Mecca kills 23 on Haj pilgrimage

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A pilgrims' hostel outside the Grand Mosque in Islam's holiest city collapsed as millions of Muslims converged for the annual haj pilgrimage. Up to 23 people were reported to have died, with 60 injured.

Rescue teams pulled bodies from the rubble of the five-storey Al Ghaza, which collapsed after many pilgrims had returned to their lodgings after midday prayers. Most victims were from Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

Al Ghaza is 60m from the Grand Mosque at the Bab al-Salam, or Gate of Peace. The multi-purpose building, rented out as a hostel during pilgrimage seasons, is surrounded by markets that stay open 24 hours during the pilgrimage, a major source of income.

Talha al-Nizi, a Tunisian guide for pilgrims, said his group had just finished their prayers and returned to their hotel, next to Al Ghaza. "As I moved to step into my hotel, the whole building collapsed in front of my eyes," said Mr al-Nizi, who captured video and still images of the collapse on his mobile phone. "The whole street was full of dust."

Rescuers used three cranes and two bulldozers to remove large blocks of concrete and others were blasted apart.People were being pulled out from under the rubble.

Major-General Saad al-Tweijery, commander of the civil defence unit in Mecca, said he had no figures of the dead or injured so far. Saudi television, quoted by Al-Arabiya news channel, said 15 people were killed. Al-Jazeera television put the death toll at 23, with another 60 injured.

Qassim Bashir, an Indian who works at a hospital in Jiddah, the nearest city, said hundreds of doctors and other medics had been brought in. He said he pulled out four dead bodies in "very bad shape", and he could hear moaning and crying from inside.

"I think those who are trapped inside are more than those who have been pulled out," he said. The injured were being taken to hospitals in Mecca and Jiddah, about 70km east of Mecca.

The nearby courtyard of the Grand Mosque encloses the Kaaba, a large cubic stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers. The Prophet Mohammed was born in Mecca, and the Grand Mosque is central to the Muslim faith and the haj. Daily prayers are also conducted in the mosque's marble-paved yard, which can hold thousands. Islam's five pillars demand that followers profess there is one God and Mohammed is His prophet, pray five times daily, give alms, fast daily during the holy month of Ramadan and - if financially able - travel to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

The number of pilgrims going to Mecca has increased elevenfold over the past 15 years. During that time, the Saudi government spent billions of dollars to improve accommodation, transportation and medical facilities for the "guests of Allah".

The massive gathering has been hit with tragedies frequently. The worst was in 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites. In 2004, on the final day of the ceremonies, 251 people were trampled to death when the crowd panicked during the ritual stoning of the devil. Three years earlier, 35 haj pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the same ceremony.

In 1998, about 180 pilgrims were trampled to death in panic after several fell off an overpass during the ritual. Four years earlier, in 1994, some 270 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual.