Saudi Arabia boosts security as death-marred hajj season winds down
MINA (Saudi Arabia) - Saudi Arabia deployed large numbers of Special Forces on Saturday as pilgrims performed the final rituals of a hajj marred by double tragedies that killed more than 800 people.
Dozens of "special emergency force" troops were seen on one level of the Jamarat Bridge, a five-storey structure in Mina where pilgrims ritually stone the devil, and on which hundreds of thousands were converging when a deadly stampede struck nearby on Thursday.
Many more special troops patrolled the network of roads leading to the structure, which resembles a parking garage.
The tightened measures came after at least 717 people died outside Jamarat Bridge in the worst tragedy to strike the annual Muslim pilgrimage in a quarter-century.
The interior ministry has said it assigned 100,000 police to secure the hajj and manage crowds.
But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the throng, during searing temperatures.
Criticism has also been particularly strident from Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, which on Saturday raised to 136 the number of its nationals who died.
The disaster was the second deadly accident to hit worshippers this month. A crane collapse in the nearby holy city of Mecca killed 109 people days before the hajj.
Undeterred, pilgrims on Saturday still flooded the area to perform the stoning for a third time on the last day of the hajj, which this year drew about two million people.
Most pilgrims begin leaving on Saturday, returning to Mecca where they circumambulate the holy Kaaba structure before going home.
"We are thankful to our brothers in Saudi Arabia for this effort," said Abdullah Ali, a 38-year-old Emirati, who blamed other pilgrims for the deadly stampede and urged more awareness.
"As you can see, people come from different backgrounds. They are affected by their cultures."
Abdullah al-Sheikh, chairman of the Shura Council, an appointed body which advises the government, stressed that pilgrims must stick to "the rules and regulations taken by the security personnel".
His comments, reported late Friday by the official Saudi Press Agency, followed similar remarks by Health Minister Khaled al-Falih.
The minister faulted worshippers themselves for the tragedy, saying that if "the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided".
Saudi Arabia's top religious leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that the incident was beyond human control.
"You are not responsible for what happened", SPA quoted Sheikh as saying.
"Fate and destiny are inevitable."
Mohammed chairs the Saudi hajj committee and has ordered an investigation into the stampede.
King Salman, whose official title is "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina, also ordered "a revision" of how the hajj is organised.
Saudi authorities have yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of the 717 pilgrims killed in the stampede, as the difficult process of identification continues.
But several foreign countries, largely African and Asian, have announced deaths.
Only around 250 deaths in total have been officially confirmed by foreign officials.
Sudanese pilgrim Abdulmahmud Rahman, 52, said he was happy to have carried out the hajj rituals but "pained that some pilgrims had died in such catastrophic circumstances".
He said he hoped organisers "would learn a lesson for next year's hajj".
Rahman suggested that when police close roads, it should be done from far away with signs warning pilgrims, so they did not find themselves crowded into the same area.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said "a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time" at an intersection in Mina.
"The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims," he said.
Ali Mohammed Assiri, a 23-year-old Saudi student, said that countries sending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia "should first educate them and raise awareness among them on how to follow rules."
For years, the hajj was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade after safety improvements and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment.
The stoning bridge, erected in the past decade, has a capacity of 300,000 pilgrims an hour and was intended to improve safety after past disasters.