REUTERS Thu 12/1/2006
Haj crush kills at least 57 pilgrims: witnesses
By Heba Kandil
MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - At least 57 Muslim pilgrims died in crowding during a stoning ritual on the last day of the haj, witnesses said on Thursday.
Reuters journalists counted at least 50 bodies lined up on the ground and covered in white shrouds -- some being placed on lorries by medics. Another seven bodies were counted separately in another area of the road.
A Saudi Interior Ministry source told Reuters an unknown number of people had been killed in the crush at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat Bridge in Mena, a narrow valley outside the holy city of Mecca.
One witness said some bodies had already been taken away in trucks earlier.
Ambulances were still arriving on the scene, but pilgrims were still moving up onto the bridge to carry out the stoning ritual before evening prayers.
More than two million pilgrims are performing this year's haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime. The ritual has been marred by stampedes in the past.
In 2004, some 250 pilgrims were crushed to death at Jamarat Bridge, on which the millions of pilgrims must stand while they hurl stones at three thick walls in a symbolic casting out of the devil and rejection of temptation.
Saudi Arabia has revamped the Jamarat area, expanding the stoning targets and provided an unprecedented security blanket including 60,000 security men to control the huge crowd and avert possible attacks by Islamist militants.
After this year's haj, the Jamarat bridge will be replaced with a more elaborate bridge involving a four-level system of entrances and exits to the three walls, including a subway, and costing 4.2 billion riyals ($1.12 billion).
This year's haj had already been overshadowed by the collapse of a Mecca hostel that killed 76 people ahead of the pilgrimage and warnings the huge crowds could lead to a possible spread of the deadly bird flu.
Pilgrims, in white robes meant to eradicate differences in race and class between Muslims, perform a third day of stoning on Thursday and make a final visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to rules laid out by Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago.