Death Toll in Hajj Disaster Rises, as Iran Calls for Investigation at UN

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Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, September 24, 2015.Credit: AP

The death toll in a crush outside the holy city of Mecca on Thursday has risen to 769, Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Saturday, as Iran reiterated its outrage over the disaster at the UN and called for an investigation. 

"The latest statistics up to this hour reveal 769 dead. That is an increase of 52 on the previous figures," Falih told a news conference. "Those are the ones who died in various hospitals since the event," he said, adding that 934 people were wounded. 

The crush, the worst hajj disaster in a quarter-century, occurred a few kilometers east of Mecca at Mina. It was caused by two large groups of pilgrims arriving together at a crossroads on their way to performing the "stoning the devil" ritual at Jamarat. 

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rohani used a major United Nations speech on Saturday to demand an investigation into the crush. In his speech to the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly, Rohani emphasized the need for an investigation into "the causes of this incident and other similar incidents in this year's hajj." He describe the crush as "heart-rending." 

The fact that Rohani used a UN summit meeting on global development goals to reiterate Iran's outrage over the hajj tragedy was a sign that Tehran does not intend to tone down criticism of its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and the Saudis see themselves as leaders in the Muslim world. 

Saudi Arabia on Friday suggested pilgrims ignoring crowd control rules bore some blame for the incident. Saudi King Salman ordered a review of haj plans, and Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted. 

Iran has repeatedly expressed outrage at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world's largest annual gathering of people. 

Rohani suggested on Friday the tragedy may be a result of the Saudis transferring experienced troops to Yemen to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a military campaign that Tehran has repeatedly criticized. 

Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam's holiest sites and host to millions of pilgrims annually. But the hajj poses an immense logistical and security challenge for the kingdom, given the sheer number of hundreds of thousands of people — from differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds, many of whom have saved for years for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the hajj — intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.

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