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More Details Emerge As Probe Launched Into Mina Stampede Tragedy That Shook Us All

26 September 2015

By Siraj Wahab, Arab News Editorial

Thursday's heartbreaking Mina tragedy shocked and grieved everybody.

While the incident underlined the need for more efforts to bolster safety measures, the massive operation undertaken by the Kingdom to ensure a secure and comfortable Haj cannot be ignored.

There can't be an excuse for the unfortunate crush, but the importance of pilgrims' self-awareness and self-discipline needs to be highlighted again. Pilgrims carrying bags while walking and not following clear instructions about movement have caused problems in the past too. No security apparatus in the world can physically control a crowd that swells to millions in limited space and time.

The Kingdom spends billions of riyals on the Haj management and deploys the best resources to implement gigantic projects at the holy sites. The Kingdom considers this task as its Islamic duty. The government does not make any profits from its massive Haj operation, which is second to none in size and volume.

Handling two to three million Muslims from 164 different countries and cultures is a mammoth task. No one in the world has the kind of experience the authorities here have gained in ensuring a smooth pilgrimage. It is a phenomenal organizational feat. The wellbeing and security of such a vast concentration of people in such a relatively small area is a big undertaking.

The logistics are mind-boggling. Hajis needed 10 million cubic meters of water. More than 800 flights a day landed at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz International Airport - that works out at almost two planes a minute over a 24-hour period.

Hundreds of thousands of security personnel and volunteers were present throughout the Haj to save pilgrims from deluded fanatics and to keep the event free from politics. Ferociously high temperatures also added to the challenge this year.

After the crane disaster in Makkah, the world saw how Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman took action on the spot and a swift probe was launched to fix responsibility. A preliminary enquiry resulted in negligent contractors being banned from leaving the Kingdom. But even while the wreckage was still being cleared away, substantial compensation was announced for the injured and for the families of the dead.

Similar action was witnessed on Thursday when the king ordered a review of Haj plans.

The Kingdom, which believes in transparency, has no reason to hide facts.

Saudi Arabia was, is and will always be dedicated to looking after Hajis' welfare and security in the best way possible.

The Kingdom is periodically subjected to unjust criticism by some quarters in the Muslim world. This must stop. The critics will do a greater service to their cause by joining hands with Saudi Arabia to make the annual pilgrimage more comfortable.

Probe Launched Into Mina Stampede

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman offered condolences to the families and relatives of those killed in Thursday's Mina stampede that left 717 Hajis dead and 805 injured.
He reiterated his resolve to continue measures to make Haj comfortable and secure.

He said regardless of whatever is the result of the probe, the massive development plans undertaken to upgrade Haj services will continue without any break.

He said he had instructed the authorities concerned to review the current plans and arrangements and exert more efforts to ensure better management of pilgrims' movement.

The king vowed that all obstacles and difficulties would be removed to enable the guests of God to perform their rituals with ease and comfort.

He said Mina incident was painful and a probe had been launched but that did not mean ''we should undermine the magnificent work the security personnel and those deployed on Haj duties have been doing to serve the pilgrims so that they could perform their rituals with ease and comfort.''

He congratulated citizens and pilgrims on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha and prayed to Allah to bestow His blessings on the Muslim Ummah.

Earlier, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif ordered the formation of an investigation committee to determine the causes of the stampede. Its findings would be submitted to King Salman.
He held a meeting with top Haj security officials following the incident to discuss ways to deal with the issue, according to Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, Interior Ministry spokesman.

About the study on the Mina area and roads leading to Jamrat, he said that was the nature of the site, which is not changeable because it has specific borders.

The crown prince said these borderlines are part of Haj rituals and congestion and narrow roads cannot be redressed simply based on someone's imagination.

He said security authorities have seriously considered the issue of overcrowding which happens due to the high density of pilgrims on roads leading from Mina to Jamrat, adding that the street where the incident occurred was an internal street in Mina, and not the one leading to Muzdalifa.

He stressed that the Kingdom will not hesitate to address the reasons for the stampede whatever the cost may be, adding that the country is keen to provide all possible means to ensure the safety and security of pilgrims to help them perform their rituals safely and easily.

Maj. Gen. Al-Turki said the incident occurred as a result of pilgrims' movement toward the Street 204 intersecting with the Street 223.

He said high temperatures and fatigue due to pilgrims' stay at Arafat could also be other factors.
He said security bodies dealt with the incident immediately and began to rescue those who had fallen in the crush.

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Security men pleaded with Hajis to stay back...

Tragedy struck Mina on Day 3 of the five-day pilgrimage on Thursday, when 717 people were killed in a massive crush and 805 others injured.

The accident comes close on the heels of a crane crash in Makkah's Grand Mosque two weeks ago in which 111 people, mostly pilgrims, perished.

Eyewitness accounts were contradictory. Some said one large group of pilgrims was on its way to performing the dangerous ritual of the stoning of the devil on a bottleneck close to Souq Al-Arab Street on their way to Jamrat, clashing with another group that was coming back after completing the ritual from the same road.

The Interior Ministry said the stampede appears to have been caused by two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection.

Eyewitnesses told Arab News that it was jostling by some stronger pilgrims caught behind a slower group including elderly people that led to the disaster.

They said security personnel were pleading with pilgrims to stay back, but they were too caught up in their fervor to listen and continued to press ahead, resulting in a stampede.

Egyptian pilgrim Abdullah Lotfy, 44, said: ''I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one another just to breathe.''

The stampede took place at around 8 a.m., at a time when two million pilgrims had marched into this tent city from nearby Muzdalifa, where they had spent Wednesday night under the open skies collecting their 50 pea-sized pebbles to perform the stoning ritual.

A visit to the accident site two hours after the tragedy revealed terrifying scenes. Bodies, clad in ihram the two pieces of seamless cloth that pilgrims wear were piled up by the hard shoulder of the street known as Sharea Al-Jadid, lying in heaps, their skin flayed off their bodies by the crush.

But many bodies showed no visible injuries and looked paradoxically peaceful, spread-eagled by the side of the road. A doctor at hand said most of them died of suffocation.

Survivors sat weeping inconsolably in the 45-degree heat, seeking any shade they could find in the concrete-and-rubble desert, completely traumatized by what they had seen. One old man was clinging to the lifeless body of a relative.

Medics had to pull out the corpses one by one.

Immediately after the accident, ambulances raced to the scene and carried the dead and the injured to hospitals in and around Mina. Most of the injured were too shocked to speak, and many were unconscious.

Throughout the day, the wailing of ambulances rent the air dampening the morale of the tired and exhausted pilgrims. The authorities and representatives of pilgrims advised them to refrain from performing the stoning ritual. Helicopters hovered overhead, alerting officials on the ground to bottlenecks.

However, at the multistory Jamrat Complex, pilgrims continued to stone the devil, and many of them headed to the Grand Mosque to perform tawaf or circumambulation of the Kaaba.

Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, himself performing Haj, visited the scene immediately after the tragedy.

Indian Consul General B.S. Mubarak said consular officials were able to indentify some Indians among the injured. But he said the street where the accident took place was not the one that Indian pilgrims normally take to Jamrat.

''Indian pilgrims go via Souq Al-Arab Street and Al-Jawhara Street, both of which are one-way going into the direction of the Jamrat Complex. This street is the one where our pilgrims come back after performing the stoning ritual,'' he told Arab News.

Later in the day, Mubarak confirmed the death of one Indian from Jhakhand who had come for Haj duty. ''His name is Neyazul Haque and he was working in Yanbu,'' he said. Three other Indians are reported missing.

Pakistani diplomats were at the scene assessing the situation. There are reports that some Pakistanis were among the victims.

According to officials, most of the victims were of African, Arab and Iranian origin. The inquiry committee will reveal why those in charge of the pilgrim movement allowed pilgrims to head into that street from both directions.

The tragedy has cast a pall of gloom over the festive season and the entire Muslim world, occurring on a day when Muslims in the Arab world were celebrating the Eid Al-Adha.

''This is a tragedy that has completely shattered us,'' said a woman outside Mina Al-Jisr Hospital. ''I have never seen death from such a close quarter. I don't know how I survived.''

Most of the injured and dead were taken to Mina Emergency Hospital, Mina Al-Jisr Hospital and other hospitals in Makkah, Muzdalifa and Arafat. 

Hajj violators caught trying to enter Mashair in female clothing

Meanwhile Commander of Haj forces in the Makkah police, Maj. Gen. Abdulaziz bin Othman Al-Souli announced the capture of violators at checkpoints who were trying to enter Makkah and the Holy Mashair in female clothing.

He confirmed to local media that around 123,950 people were turned back for not having Haj permits along with more than 36,000 vehicles that were not authorized to enter the Mashair, in addition to 1,340 who transported violators. He said all those captured were referred to relevant authorities and confirmed that five fake Haj offices have been caught and more than 200 people who don't have Haj permits have been fingerprinted.

He said that this year's plan focused on moving pilgrims from one holy site to the next easily and smoothly and in record time. The plan was completed early. Work on this plan started at the end of the last Haj season and the positive side has been developed and previous negative points were avoided.

He added that some people revert to new cheating methods to get to the Mashair; some of them tried to sneak in wearing female clothes, but many attempts have been frustrated, thanks to the vigilance of security forces.

Al-Souli underlined that 58 fake Haj offices were monitored this year as well as the people behind them. Officials will not allow any attempt to carry on such activities and they will be on the look out for these illegal activities



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