Saudi 'negligence' blamed for Haj pilgrim stampede

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Saudi negligence and failure to prepare for the mass influx of Muslims during the Haj was blamed yesterday for the deaths of hundreds of people, including two Britons, in the worst disaster to hit the annual ritual for 16 years.

A total 363 pilgrims were crushed to death on Thursday, at the narrow eastern end of the Jamarat Bridge in Mecca as they tried to perform the ritual stoning of the devil.

The Foreign Office yesterday confirmed that two Britons had been killed and several others injured in the stampede. Lord Patel, head of the official delegation to the Haj, said one of those killed was Fayaz Huq, 38, of Uxbridge, Middlesex, and that a Briton believed to be from the Birmingham area had also died.

As Saudi officials attempted to pin the blame for the crush on the pilgrims themselves, who, it was claimed, had failed to follow the "rules" of Haj, pressure was mounting on the authorities to admit they had made mistakes.

"There is no doubt that poor administration and negligence is to blame for the deaths, which occur year after year," said Dr Mai Yamani, a research fellow at Chatham House. "The authorities are blaming the pilgrims but there has been very little acknowledgement of any shortcoming or bad planning on their own part."

Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz insisted that the state had "spared no effort" to avoid such disasters but said "it cannot stop what God has preordained".

Officials blamed pilgrims for not following guidelines and ignoring advice to stagger the ritual throughout the day. Sheikh Saud al-Shuraim, a senior cleric, said: "Events like this show that pilgrims should know the rules and practices of Haj."

But Dr Yamani, one of the world's foremost Saudi scholars, said there was no excuse for the authorities' "extremely poor management and administration".

"Having two million people in between Mecca and Mina at the same time is very difficult to manage. But there was negligence and there must be an acknowledgement of some wrongdoing," she said, adding that she would like to see an international, Muslim-led inquiry into the accidents.

Dr Yamani's criticisms were echoed by Ahmed Sheikh, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, who said the Saudi authorities should provide better emergency service response and improve routes in and out of the site.

Overcrowding on the pilgrimage's final day as crowds push towards the Jamarat Bridge to hurl stones at three pillars representing Satan has long been a major problem at the Haj. From 1998 to 2004, almost 500 people were killed in stampedes.

In recent years, the ruling house of Saud has widened the ramps leading to the platform where the holy pillars are located and created more emergency exits. But critics have said such steps will do little to ensure security without a major redesign of the site.