Fears for Britons in hajj pilgrimage disaster

Rescue workers attend to victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage. Picture: AP
Rescue workers attend to victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage. Picture: AP
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A HORRIFYING crush at the annual hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca has killed more than 700 people.

The deadliest disaster in 25 years to hit the sacred pilgrimage has killed 717 people and injured 863, according to Saudi Arabian officials, and has left shocked members of the Muslim community calling for an explanation of what went wrong.

Some two million people from across the world take part in the five-day pilgrimage which began on Tuesday.

The crush happened in a morning surge of pilgrims yesterday at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 in Mina, a large valley about three miles east of Mecca.

The faithful were making their way towards a large structure overlooking three columns where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles.

It was not known last night whether any of the dead are British but Foreign secretary Philip Hammond said the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is bolstering the size of its team on the ground as it seeks to “urgently gather information about British nationals”.

He said: “I was saddened to hear of the enormous loss of life in Mecca. Such a significant tragedy will affect Muslims across the world who take part in the hajj pilgrimage.”

FCO staff are “in close contact” with the Saudi authorities and tour operators, and are checking hospitals and other locations.

It is estimated that around 25,000 British nationals head overseas from the UK to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, according to Abta, the travel association.

Each year pilgrims pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to go on the trip which all believers who can afford it are required to perform once, with people spending between £4,000 and £5,000 for a typical pilgrimage.

Amateur video and pictures on social media showed images of dead bodies on the ground dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during the hajj. Other pictures showed people sitting in wheelchairs being treated.

Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.

International media covering the hajj were restricted from visiting the site for several hours and from immediately leaving an information ministry complex where the press is housed during the final three days of the pilgrimage, as per government rules.

Dozens of bodies could still be seen in the streets at dusk despite the presence of ambulances and refrigerator trucks.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed.”

A message on behalf of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the stampede.

It added: “May Allah grant the martyrs a place in heaven. Praying for the injured in Mina stampede and for the safe return of all the hajis.”

The tragedy happened as Muslims around the world celebrated the key festival of Eid al-Adha

Mohammed Adree Sharif, who joined pilgrims in the stoning ritual at the hajj, said he was “absolutely shocked” and “horrified” by the deaths as the event had seemed to be well organised.

He told ITV News: “We had heard about things like that happening in the past. The whole point of having different levels and a lot of money being spent by the Saudi government was to make it easier for the pilgrims.

“Today people are supposed to be celebrating Eid as well and yet no one is really celebrating here - we are just wandering around in shock and thinking, ‘For the grace of God, it could have been us’.”

Eid al-Adha is known as the Feast of the Sacrifice as it recalls Abraham’s willingness to kill his son in obedience to Allah.

Saudi authorities deployed about 100,000 security personnel this year to oversee crowd management and ensure’ safety.

At Mina, authorities have put measures in place over the years to try to alleviate the pressure posed by masses of pilgrims converging on the site of the stoning ritual.

Officials use surveillance cameras and other equipment to limit the number of people converging on the site, and the Jamarat Bridge has multiple exits to facilitate the flow of people.

Zulfi Karim, of the Bradford Council for Mosques, estimated between 5,000 to 7,000 people from Bradford were at the event. He said: “We are hoping and praying for those people who are out there.”

• The FCO urged worried relatives in the UK to contact its switchboard on 020 7008 1500; go online @FCOtravel; or contact the FCO via Twitter.