SAUDI authorities were yesterday accused of triggering the hajj stampede that killed more than 700 by closing roads so dignitaries could reach a palace.
Saudi health minister Khaled al-Falih blamed victims for the disaster for failing to follow instructions, adding: “This type of accident could have been avoided. However, this is God’s will.”
But pilgrims and Muslim groups hit back angrily at the claims, accusing Saudi police of creating fatal bottlenecks by closing two roads being used by hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
Mohammed Jafari, an adviser to the Hajj and Umrah Travel tour operator in the UK, said: “Talking to pilgrims on the ground, they say the main reason for this accident was that the King and his palace was receiving dignitaries including the minister of defence and members of the GCC (the Gulf Co-operation Council).
“For this reason, they closed two of the entrances to where the [‘stoning of the devil’ ritual] happens and they closed two roads... which created two bottlenecks.
“It is the fault of the Saudi government because any time a prince comes along, they close the roads and don’t think about the disaster waiting to happen.”
Meanwhile, thousands protested yesterday in the streets of Tehran as the Iranians blamed rival Saudi Arabia over the disater, with a senior cleric demanding Saudi Arabia hand over control of the annual pilgrimage to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest body of Muslim nations.
For its part, the OIC said it supported Saudi Arabia’s efforts at keeping some two million pilgrims safe in the annual hajj that all able-bodied Muslims are expected to perform once in their lifetime. However, the protests show the deep tensions between the Sunni kingdom and the Shiite powerhouse.
Saudi authorities are investigating what sparked Thursday’s disaster in Mina, about three miles from Mecca.
Initial reports suggested two crowds coming from opposing directions converged on an intersection, which began pushing and shoving until a stampede began.
The Saudi civil defence directorate said the death toll was 719, but that it probably would rise. At least 863 people were injured, the directorate said.
Countries around the world began reporting on casualties and their missing, including Pakistan, which said at least 236 of its pilgrims were unaccounted for. Egypt said the death toll for the country had risen to 14.
India said at least 14 of its citizens died in the crush, which also claimed the lives of at least four Turks, three Indonesians, three Kenyans and seven Pakistanis. Authorities in West Africa said 30 pilgrims from Mali and five from Senegal also died.
Among all those countries, Iran immediately appeared to be hardest hit, saying 131 of its pilgrims died and 85 were injured.
Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a senior cleric in Tehran, called for the OIC to take over administration of the hajj.
“The Saudi government and authorities involved in hajj should appear before court and be held accountable,” he said. “They should not lie and say, ‘It was because this or that, the weather was hot, it was the pilgrims’ faults’.”
However, Iyad Madani, the secretary-general of the 57-nation OIC, supported the Saudi efforts.
Mr Madani “expressed hope that no party would seek to take advantage of the pilgrimage and pilgrims, and the incidents that might happen when these crowds of millions perform the same rituals at the same time, in a controversial context that would divide rather than unite,” a statement read.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are chief rivals in the greater Middle East. That conflict is on display in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bombing Shiite rebels there Iran has backed.