Hundreds die as Muslim pilgrimage turns to tragedy: The disaster reflects badly on the Saudi authorities, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

ONCE again the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca has ended in tragedy. Hundreds are known to have been killed during a stampede at the 'stoning the devil' ritual and there are fears that the toll could rise.

The first news came in a terse statement by the Saudi Health Ministry. The official Saudi Press Agency quoted a Health Ministry official as saying that 829 pilgrims died during this year's haj of old age and heart ailments and that an unspecified number had been killed by 'heavy throngs throwing pebbles on Monday'.

It is still unclear where the victims came from. It was reported that most were from Indonesia, from Turkey and from Africa. In Ankara a Turkish official said five of the dead were Turks. Algeria state radio said at least two Algerians were among the dead. A spokesman in the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs said none of the victims was Indonesian.

In London the Foreign Office said it had not been informed of any British Muslims killed.

Talat Sharif, a pilgrim who said he was at the site, said a group of Indonesians were moving slowly when 'a wave of people, mostly tall, well-built Africans, trampled them to death'. Reuters quoted an Asian diplomat who was on pilgrimage and witnessed the disaster as saying: 'There was a colossal stampede. I saw very panicky people coming back from the area saying people had died and telling us not to go there.'

The disaster reflects badly on the Saudis - firstly, because it undermines the claim of King Fahd to be Guardian of the Two Holy Places, the title he ascribed to himself. For once again the Saudis, who spend billions of pounds on sophisticated weapons to defend the kingdom against external threats, have been unable to ensure the security of those often coming on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.

Secondly, the way in which news was released shows the cavalier attitude that the Saudi government has towards telling the whole truth. Finally, the Saudi authorities appear to have made no effort to inform the countries from which the victims came of what happened.

Until Monday the Saudis had been congratulating themselves on running a trouble-free haj. According to official figures, there were one and a half million pilgrims this year, of whom one million came from abroad.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and every Muslim is enjoined to try to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in his or her lifetime. It is also a source of great concern to the authorities of Saudi Arabia, otherwise one of the world's least hospitable states. For the privilege entails responsibilities to allow in hundreds of thousands of people.

In 1990, 1,426 people were killed during the haj in a stampede that followed a fire at a pedestrian tunnel in Mecca.

Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on projects to improve safety and make the pilgrimage more comfortable.

It has also imposed quotas on Muslim countries to limit the number of pilgrims and ease overcrowding.

This year there have also been confrontations between the Saudi government, which bans the exploitation of the haj for political ends, and Iranian pilgrims who traditionally use the occasion to demonstrate against the Great Satan, the United States.

The stampede occurred during a ritual to commemorate the temptation by the devil of Ibrahim (Abraham) not to sacrifice his son (in the Koranic version) Ismail (Ishmael). Pilgrims have to cast stones at three pillars a couple of miles outside Mecca to symbolise this act.