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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test