More than 700 dead in Hajj stampede, Saudi Arabia authorities say

Crush occurred at the city of Mina, on outskirts of Mecca, as some 2 million people take part in annual pilgrimage

At least 717 people were killed in a stampede on Thursday on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, according to Saudi Arabia officials, who said the incident would not have happened “if the pilgrims had followed instructions.”

The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about three miles from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of Hajj stampedes in years past.

In addition to the deaths, at least 805 others were injured in the stampede, officials said.

It was the second major disaster during this year's Hajj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly two million Muslims taking part in the annual religious event. 

Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls, although Thursday’s crush did not happen at that exact site. The city also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

About 4,000 rescue services personnel participated in the operation on Thursday to help the injured and about 220 ambulances were directed to the scene, a civil defense spokesman said.

Later Thursday, King Salman expressed his condolences over the tragic crush and pledged a speedy investigation. He said he has asked for a review of "all existing plans and arrangements ... to improve the level of organization and management of the movement" of pilgrims at the Hajj.

Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies — the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during Hajj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sun-baked street.

Officials blame pilgrims

The head of the Central Hajj Committee, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, blamed the stampede on “some pilgrims from African nationalities,” Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV channel reported. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's health minister, Khaled al-Falih, blamed undisciplined pilgrims for the deadly stampede, saying the tragedy would not have occurred if they “had followed instructions.”

He was quoted by El-Ekhbariya television as saying “any pilgrims move without respecting the timetables" established by authorities, which was the "principal reason for this type of accident.”

“If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided,” he said. 

However, Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank blamed the Saudi government's “mismanagement” of the Hajj.

He said the Ministry of Interior's use of “soldiers who have no clue or expertise in managing crowds” was the “real cause of stampedes.” 

“This is really has to do with the failure of the Saudi government in organizing this Hajj and they need to get help from around the world,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. 

Previous tragedies

Iranian authorities have said that at least 43 Iranian nationals were killed in the stampede. Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.

Tragedies like Thursday's are not uncommon.

The stampede happened less than two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the focal point of the Hajj.

That accident, on Sept. 11, killed at least 111 people and injured more than 390. Authorities blamed the crane collapse on high winds during an unusually powerful storm.

But Thursday’s stampede is the first to occur in years.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina.

Two years earlier, a crush of pilgrims at Mina killed 244 pilgrims and injured hundreds on the final day of the Hajj ceremonies.

In 2001, a stampede at Mina during the final day of the pilgrimage ceremonies killed 35 pilgrims.

The worst Hajj-related tragedy, which occurred in 1990, claimed the lives of 1,426 pilgrims in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Al Jazeera's Basma Atassi contributed to this report. 

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