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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine