At least 717 people have been crushed to death and hundreds of others hurt in a stampede of pilgrims in one of the worst incidents in years to hit the Muslim Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s civil defence service said rescue operations were under way after the stampede in Mina, where almost two million pilgrims were taking part in the last major rite of 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 sunbaked street.
Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area, placing victims on stretchers and desperately trying to resuscitate others.
The disaster comes just two weeks after a construction crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 109 people.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the stampede.
Pilgrims had converged on Mina just outside Mecca on Thursday to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, the symbolic ‘stoning of the devil’ that marks the last day of the event.
The world’s 1.5billion Muslims were marking Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar.
The Hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime.
In the past, the pilgrimage was for years marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements.
In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
Thursday’s ritual was taking place at a five-storey structure known as the Jamarat Bridge, which cost more than $1billion to build and was used during earlier pilgrimages.
Almost one kilometre long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.
The faithful had gathered until dawn Thursday at nearby Muzdalifah where they chose their pebbles and stored them in empty water bottles.
It was not immediately clear if the stoning ritual at Mina would continue as planned until Saturday after the stampede.
Yesterday, they had spent a day of prayer on a vast Saudi plain and Mount Arafat, a rocky hill about 10 kilometres from Mina, for the peak of the Hajj pilgrimage.
The flow of exhausted pilgrims was so big that Saudi security forces had to form a human chain along the roads of the vast Arafat plain while a jets of water were sprayed on the huge crowds to keep them cool amid searing heat.