Saudis clear debris of Mecca's hellish pilgrimage inferno pilgrimage inferno deckys

Saudi Arabian authorities in Mecca were yesterday trying to identify the bodies of 217 Muslim pilgrims burned to death in the fire which engulfed their tent city as they attended the Hajj pilgrimage.

A further 1,290 people are known to suffered injuries as the flames, fanned by the wind, spread rapidly through the 70,000 tents pitched on the plain of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca.

Diplomats said the number of casualties, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, might rise. "All our efforts to get an idea of the number of the dead are in vain," said one foreign envoy. "Hospital staff are not authorised to speak and the Saudi authorities are not sharing new information with the embassies or the press."

Mohammed Hamad Ansari, the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the number of Indian victims might eventually total 100. "The bodies were charred in the fire and we cannot identify them except from a missing persons list," he said. About 12 Pakistanis have been identified out of 30 who are thought to have died.

In the remains of the Mina encampment, trucks were beginning yesterday to cart away burned wreckage of everything from charred water bottles to refrigerators, air conditionersand buses, which caught fire as strong winds spread the flames. The cause of the blaze is being attributed to an exploding gas cylinder, often used for cooking food and making coffee and tea by many of the 2 million Hajj pilgrims.

To take part in the Haji is one of the five pillars of Islam. It reached its high point yesterday as pilgrims, clothed in white, walked to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is reputed to have preached his last sermon. The pilgrims chanted: "I have answered your call, God, there is no God but you."

Behind them, new tents are being erected to replaced those destroyed in the blaze.

The Eid al-Adha feast at the end of the Hajj is celebrated by Muslims today.

The level of casualties is below that of 1990, when a stampede in a tunnel between Mina and Mecca led to 1,400 people being crushed to death. In 1987 400 people were killed in clashes with Saudi security. In 1994 another 270 people were crushed to death in a stampede. Saudi Arabia says it has spent $18.6bn (pounds 10bn) in the last 10 years on improving facilities for those attending the Hajj.

The Saudi authorities say the problems stem from the failure of Muslim countries to keep to a quota system agreed in 1988 by the Organisation of the Islamic Countries. Under this a country is allowed one pilgrim performing the Hajj for every 1,000 Muslims in its population. But in the past year, almost half the 2 million pilgrims were from Saudi Arabia itself.

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