Hajj Stampede Kills 345 People - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

1/11/06-Mina, Saudi Arabia

Hajj Stampede Kills 345 People

At least 345 people have been killed in a stampede during a symbolic stoning ritual at the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, according to the country's health ministry.

Health Minister Hamad al-Maneh told Saudi TV that 289 others were were injured in the stampede near Mecca and taken to hospital.

Many of those injured were not seriously hurt and have been released from the hospital, al-Maneh said. The number of injured does not include those treated on the scene, he said.

Video of the scene showed dozens of bodies lying on the ground, covered with sheets and blankets.

A U.S.-based religious scholar, who arrived shortly after the stampede, said it was a heartbreaking scene.

"Looking at the amount of ambulances brings tears to your eyes," he said.

"I heard screaming and I looked around and saw people jumping over each other. Police came and cordoned off the area. They starting pulling out bodies. The bodies were piled up. I couldn't count them, they were too many," Suad Abu Hamada, an Egyptian pilgrim, told The Associated Press.

Ahmed Mustafa, an Egyptian pilgrim, said he saw bodies taken away in refrigerator trucks. "There must be dozens of people dead," he told AP.

The stampede, like others in the past, occurred during the stone-throwing ritual in which the pilgrims stone a symbolic devil. It took place at a wide bridge over the desert plain of Mina.

Saudi authorities had replaced the pillar, which had represented the devil in the past, with an oval wall with padding around the edges to protect the crush of pilgrims.

Saudi officials had also installed cameras and dispatched about 60,000 security personnel to monitor the crowds.

The interior ministry said Thursday's trampling occurred when the pilgrims bottlenecked at the eastern edge of the bridge leading to the oval wall. Many pilgrims brought their luggage, which caused further crowding.

About 3 million Muslims are believed to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad.

The Hajj has been connected with deadly incidents in the past, most of them stampedes that take place during the ceremonies.

However, at least 76 people -- mostly pilgrims -- were killed last week when a hotel collapsed near the Grand Mosque in central Mecca. It is still unclear what caused the small building to crumble onto the streets packed with pilgrims.

The worst stampede happened in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death.

More recently, 251 pilgrims died two years ago in a stampede during the stone-throwing ritual. A stampede in 2003 killed 36 pilgrims, most of them en route to the devil-stoning ritual, conducted outside Mecca. In 2001, a stampede at the same ritual killed 35.

Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the trip is obliged to perform the Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime.

Making Hajj is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Mecca is revered as the holiest site of Islam, and the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, is the focal point of the rites observed.

The six-day pilgrimage ends with a four-day feast called the Eid al-Adha.

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