MORE than 700 pilgrims have been crushed to death in a stampede caused by two waves of worshippers colliding at an inspection in the holy city of Mecca.
Saudi authorities have sought to exempt themselves from criticism following the tragedy during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, with officials suggesting worshippers themselves were to blame.
Authorities said 717 people were killed and around 850 injured as disaster struck the holy city of Mecca, where two million pilgrims had gathered.
The accident comes less than two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the focal point of the hajj which began on Tuesday.
It is thought to be the worst incident in more than two decades to hit the religious festival of Eid.
Amateur video and pictures shared on social media showed a horrific scene with scores of bodies - the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj - lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles.
The stampede was caused by a morning surge of pilgrims at the intersection of two parallel streets, according to the Saudi civil defence directorate.
Two survivors said the crush began when two waves of pilgrims going in opposite directions collided.
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. It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back."
Mr Lotfy said that having two flows of pilgrims interacting in this way should never have happened. "There was no preparation. What happened was more than they were ready for," he said of the Saudi authorities
Ismail Hamba, 58, from Nigeria, recalled falling down and then being trampled by marching pilgrims. "It was really, really terrible," he said.
In the hours after the tragedy, the Saudi health minister suggested the crush was caused by pilgrims who failed to "follow instructions" from authorities.
Rebutting claims local authorities were to blame, Khaled al-Falih said the stampede was "possibly caused by the movement of some pilgrims who didn't follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities".
According to Al-Jazeera, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel reported the head of Central Hajj Committee Prince Khaled al-Faisal blaming the stampede on "some pilgrims from African nationalities".
The tragedy happened in Mina, on the outskirts of Mecca, amid the "stoning the devil" ritual on the 1km long Jamarat Bridge, where 300,000 pilgrims throw stones at 26 metre-long walls, supposedly to ease the pressure of overcrowding and prevent people being trampled.
The death toll is the worst to strike the pilgrimage since 1990 when at least 1,426 pilgrims perished in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
Although the Jamarat Bridge has multiple exits to facilitate the flow of people, and officials use surveillance cameras and other equipment to limit the number of people converging on the site, tragedies in this particular area are not uncommon. In 2006 more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in the same area as people push and shove their way forward to get close to the walls. Another stampede at Mina in 2004 left 244 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured.
Around two million pilgrims, including 1.4 million foreigners, are attending this week's Hajj, an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim, which began on Tuesday.
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 a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.
The stoning ritual emulates the Prophet Abraham, who is said to have stoned the devil at three locations when he tried to dissuade Abraham from God's order to sacrifice his son Ishmael. At the last moment, God spares the boy, sending a sheep to be sacrificed in his place. The world's Muslims commemorated Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son by slaughtering cows, sheep and other animals.
At least 41 Iranian pilgrims died and at least 60 were injured in the crush, according to the chief of the Iranian hajj organizing agency. Saeed Ohadi blamed Saudi Arabia for "safety errors" and said in comments to Iranian state TV that Saudi "mismanagement" led to the tragedy.
Rashid Mogradia, of the Council of British Hajjis, a national organisation which looks after the welfare of pilgrims who are going to Mecca, told the BBC: "There is a lot that has been done as far as infrastructure has been concerned, however we need to understand what has gone on today and how it can be improved so that further casualties and further incidents do not take place."
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