About 1,400 Muslim pilgrims suffocated or were trampled to death Monday in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy city of Mecca, witnesses and diplomats said.
They said the stampede began when some pilgrims stopped in the middle of the air-conditioned tunnel and there was a crush as people outside pushed forward to escape the 112-degree heat. They also said the ventilation in the tunnel then appeared to have stopped.
However, a Saudi official told Reuters news service that reports of 1,400 deaths were "exaggerated." The official, who declined to be named, refused to give the death toll, saying it would be announced today by the Saudi interior minister. The Interior Ministry on Monday said only that a number of people had died or fainted.
But an Asian diplomat, who refused to be identified, put the death toll at 1,400 and said that many of the victims were Indonesian and Malaysian pilgrims. Four Middle Eastern diplomats as well as witnesses gave the same death toll.
The stampede shattered what had been a peaceful observance of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Islam's most sacred shrine. It was the worst pilgrimage tragedy in years. In some recent years, terrorist attacks and riots had marred the celebration.
Ambulances and security forces rushed to the exits of the 500-yard-long tunnel, which links Mecca and the tent city of Mina, according to state-run Riyadh Radio, which quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman in Mina.
Witnesses said that people stampeded, crushing hundreds of pilgrims and suffocating hundreds of others.
People were smothered "as thousands of the pilgrims thronged through the tunnel . . . causing severe congestion within the tunnel as the pressure was beyond its capacity," the radio said. "This led to some deaths and some cases of fainting."
A witness, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the flow of people through the tunnel suddenly stopped. The air-conditioned tunnel can hold up to 1,000 pedestrians, but the crowd inside quickly swelled to 5,000, he said.
"With the lack of oxygen, a good number collapsed unconscious, and some died. There was also a stampede," the witness said.
"There always should be movement within the tunnel, but the entire crowd suddenly stopped, and no one yet knows why," he said.
The witness said that he helped carry victims to the ambulances waiting by the tunnel's exits but that it was impossible to determine how many people were dead or simply unconscious.
The tunnel is part of a massive $15-billion development plan at Saudi Arabia's Islamic holy sites to move pilgrims in more orderly fashion for the hajj, the world's largest religious gathering. The plan includes other tunnels and overhead bridges.
The tent city was set up in Mina to house visiting pilgrims.
There are an estimated 2 million Muslims, including 800,000 visitors from around the world, at Islam's holy sites in the Mecca area for the hajj. The celebration climaxed Sunday with prayers on Mt. Arafat, about eight miles from Mecca.
At the time of the tunnel accident, the pilgrims were taking part in post-hajj rituals or preparing to leave.
These rituals of Eid al Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, commemorate the Prophet Abraham's offering of his son in sacrifice to God.
Muslims celebrate the feast by slaughtering sheep to emulate the sacrifice of Abraham, who is also revered by Christians and Jews.
Before Tuesday, only a small fire at Mina and a few cases of heat fatigue marred an otherwise calm pilgrimage season.
Terrorism blamed on Iranian or Shiite Muslims has occurred in the past three years.
The worst incident was in 1987, when Iranians clashed with security forces, leading to the deaths of more than 400 pilgrims. The year before, the Saudis confiscated large quantities of explosives from members of the Iranian contingent.