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Hajj stampede victims mourned as blame traded
Updated: 2006-01-15 09:09

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - Families from Egypt to Indonesia grappled with the aftermath of the stampede that killed 363 during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as Saudi authorities distanced themselves from blame for the incident.

Nationals from Southeast Asia appeared to be worst hit in the stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat bridge in Mina east of Mecca on Thursday where more than half a million pilgrims had massed on the last day of the perilous stoning of the devil ritual.

Pakistan said it lost 44 pilgrims while neighbouring India said at least 28 of its citizens were killed and almost 100 still missing.

The deputy director of the morgue outside Mina Hussein Bahashwan had also said that as many as 100 Egyptians may be among the dead but health ministry spokesman Khaled al-Mirghalani said his comment was "speculative".

Interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki told reporters that 203 pilgrims were identified but provided the nationalities of only 179 including 10 Egyptians, 44 Indians, 37 Pakistanis, 18 Saudis, 11 Bengalis, seven Yemenis, six Sudanese, six Maldivians, five Afghanis and one German among others.

Turkey said Friday that 12 of its pilgrims where killed in the stampede, the worst since July 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel in Mina.

The latest stampede was inevitable due to the rush of pilgrims anxious to leave Mina at the same time after the stoning rite on the last day of the hajj, or the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Turki suggested.

He said this was made worse by the conduct of many unruly pilgrims carrying luggage and even umbrellas over their heads.

"The real reasons for the stampede can be linked to the dynamics of the masses involved in the hajj," he said.

Nearly 70 percent of the some three million pilgrims amassed in Mina before the stampede wanted to leave after the stoning ritual, he said adding that almost 600,000 alone had gathered at the entrance of the bridge hours before the countdown to the stoning.

"This is where the problem lies," he added. "In many cases the rush of the masses overtakes security forces."

Turki said the Jamarat bridge will be torn down next week to pave the way for a major renovation that will eventually create four levels by 2008.

Authorities had promised similar improvements in the aftermath of a stampede in 2004 that killed 251 people.

Turki said no lateral expansion can be made to the bridge because the sacred limits of Mina, which covers an area of about 6.8 square kilometres (2.7 square miles), are proscribed by the religious establishment.

The kingdom's ultra-conservative clerics also have the last say as to when and how long pilgrims can perform the stoning.

Several fatwas (religious edicts) were issued over the past years allowing the ritual to take place from midday to midnight and sometimes beyond.

But Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said Friday that clerics must look into the possibility of allowing the stoning before midday.

"Our learned clerics must distill from God's commands and the prophet's teachings what will make the stoning easier for pilgrims... this is very important and they have the duty to protect the lives of Muslims," he said.

Some pilgrims continued to flock Saturday to the Al-Muayasem morgue to search for their missing loved one amongs the pictures of the dead posted on a wall or shown on a television screen.

Turki suggested that families of the dead may be compensated, as was the case with the 76 killed in the collapse of an old hostel in the heart of Mecca on January 5.

"This compensation is in no way an indication of our responsibility for what happened, it is more a form of commiseration with the pilgrims," he said.

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