A stampede at one of Islam's holiest sites crushed to death at least 345 worshipers Thursday, tainting with tragedy the annual hajj pilgrimage to the Muslim religion's birthplace in Saudi Arabia.
As thick waves of worshipers made their way through the desert plain of Mina to perform one of the fundamental rituals of hajj, lost luggage piled up underfoot and tripped pilgrims. With thousands of eager Muslims pressing from behind, the bodies quickly piled up -- and the crowd trampled them.
More than 1,000 people were injured in the crush.
"The bodies were piled up," Egyptian pilgrim Suad abu Hamada told Associated Press. "I couldn't count them. They were too many."
"We tried to encircle the women to protect them," said an Egyptian pilgrim who spoke with Al Arabiya satellite television channel from his hospital bed. "But it was useless. They are all gone."
The stampede took place as the pilgrims clambered toward a massive pedestrian bridge to pelt seven pebbles at each of the three pillars representing the devil. Mina, a stretch of desert outside the holy city of Mecca, usually draws the thickest crowds of the hajj and has been the scene of similar stampedes.
Saudi authorities had widened the bridge and built extra ramps this year in hopes of easing the flow of worshipers. They had also lengthened the duration of the rite so that the pilgrims would be less frenzied.
Two million Muslims from all over the world have traveled to the Saudi holy sites this year to participate in the hajj.
All Muslims of sound body and financial ability are required to perform the pilgrimage once in their lifetime; the hajj is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.
"It's a very terrible situation. You know, today we almost died because when the accidents happened they had to stop the flow of people and the people were just pushing over each other," Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi newspaper editor who was near the scene, said in a telephone interview. "You're being pushed from behind and around."
Although banned by the Saudi government from covering the hajj, the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera aired live footage of the scene after the stampede. It showed bodies lying on the ground, covered with white sheets.
An unnamed Libyan pilgrim who said he had witnessed the stampede phoned Al Jazeera to vent his anger at security forces.
"The Saudi security personnel are to blame. They did not move in time to stop the crisis," he said. "The stampede was well underway for half an hour, and the Saudis did not do anything except shouting on the microphones, asking everyone to calm down. The rescue people or the security should have intervened earlier instead of standing far away and shouting."
A Bahraini pilgrim who called the station also blamed the Saudi authorities.
"From the beginning, I could see there was no one [from security] except the special forces," he said. "They are not trained to handle such a situation. They don't know how to deal with crowds."
Saudi officials were quick to tout the security measures they had put in place, including medical teams and police on standby, in light of past stampedes. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death in Mecca. Hundreds more have been killed in stampedes from 1994 to 2004.
Many Saudis blame the semi-regular tragedies of hajj on the pilgrims. It's not uncommon to hear Saudis complain that the pilgrims are illiterate, or that they arrive from rural areas in developing countries without any idea of how to behave properly in large crowds.
"What we need is to raise the level of education of the pilgrims before they come to Saudi Arabia, that they shouldn't carry the luggage and they shouldn't push and what we are seeing today," Yasser Hamdi, general manager of health affairs services in the Mecca area, told Saudi television. "So what we need is more education for the pilgrimage in their language."
Intent on preserving the area's architecture and religious significance, the government has refrained from major construction in Mina, leaving a barren strip of land surrounded by hills. Pilgrims were housed in 44,000 fiberglass tents that were erected by the Saudi government, according to Al Ikhbariya television in Saudi Arabia.
This year's hajj had already been struck by numerous deaths. On Jan. 5, a hotel full of pilgrims collapsed in Mecca, killing 76 people.
Times staff writer Hossam Hamalawy contributed to this report.
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Deadly incidents during the hajj pilgrimage
Jan. 12, 2006: Hundreds of pilgrims killed and many others injured in a stampede caused when some pilgrims tripped over dropped luggage as people were rushing to perform the symbolic ritual of stoning the devil in Mina.
Feb. 1, 2004: 244 pilgrims killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual.
March 5, 2001: 35 killed in stampede during the stoning ritual.
April 9, 1998: About 180 pilgrims trampled to death when panic erupts after several fell off an overpass during the stoning ritual.
April 15, 1997: Fires driven by strong winds tear through an overcrowded tent city at Mina, killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500. Aid workers and diplomats said the death toll was at least 500.
May 23, 1994: 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesians, killed in a stampede as worshipers surge forward for the stoning ritual.
July 2, 1990: 1,426 pilgrims
killed in Mecca stampede in overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites.
July 31, 1987: More than 400 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, killed and 649 wounded in Mecca when security forces clash with Iranians staging illegal anti-U.S. demonstration.
Source: Associated Press