First Published: 2004-02-02

King Fahd orders modernisation of Mecca, Medina after Hajj tragedy

Saudi officials studying strategies to handle millions of pilgrimages at one time.


Middle East Online

By Taieb Mahjoub - MINA, Saudi Arabia

Hajjis picking stones before ritual

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia ordered the holy places of Mecca and Medina to be modernised hours after 244 Muslims -- half of them Asians -- died during a ritual which regularly results in deadly stampedes at the hajj pilgrimage.

The 20-year project, announced by royal decree, would be drawn up by ministers and senior regime officials who would "gradually put forward proposals" and could call on expertise from abroad as well as within the kingdom, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Municipal and Rural Affairs Minister Mutaab bin Abdul Aziz would chair a committee including Mecca regional governor Abdul Majid bin Abdul Aziz, Medina regional governor Muqran bin Abdul Aziz and Hajj Minister Iyad bin Amin Madani, SPA said.

The 244 dead and a similar number injured were trampled or suffocated as a huge crush started Sunday when vast numbers of pilgrims surged forward to lob stones at pillars representing the devil.

The ritual involving up to 1.9 million white-robed pilgrims was due to continue in the valley of Mina, just outside Mecca, for the second day, starting around midday (0900 GMT).

It promised to be a further high-risk exercise for the Saudi authorities who had nonetheless announced last month an "integrated crowd control strategy" to prevent new tragedies during the annual event.

Pilgrims were to be dispatched in groups for the rite at a huge two-tier bridge, limitations imposed on the numbers heading toward the area and special forces deployed immediately to disperse people in case of a stampede.

The faithful were also to be told to leave the area quickly after completing the ritual while arrangements had been made to rescue pilgrims who faint or become trapped due to overcrowding. The movement of pilgrims was also to be monitored via closed-circuit television.

Last year 14 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the first day of the same ritual and 35 in 2001, while the 1998 hajj saw 118 killed and more than 180 hurt at the pillars .

Asians bore the brunt of the latest disaster with 54 Indonesians and 36 Pakistanis among the dead, the Saudi interior ministry said.

The official list also identified 13 Egyptians, 11 Turks, 11 Indians, 10 Algerians, 10 Bangladeshis, 8 Sudanese, seven Moroccans, five Chinese, four Yemenis, three Sri Lankans, two Afghans, two Somalis, two Syrians, two Saudis, one Burmese, one Omani, one Tunisian, one Nigerian, one Chadian and one Cameroonian.

Another 58 people who died had not been identified, according to the list carried by SPA, although three were said to be from southeast Asia.

"We believe that most of the dead are from among illegal pilgrims," Hajj Minister Madani said, referring to those who arrived earlier in the year to perform the minor umrah pilgrimage and stayed illegally, as well as local residents who never registered for the hajj.

He said 2,000 national guard members were moved to the area following the stampede to reinforce 10,000 police already on site.

Despite the stampede, which lasted nearly half an hour, the ritual resumed later Sunday and continued for two and a half hours.

To cries of "Allahu Akbar", pilgrims hurl seven small stones from behind a fence or from the overhead bridge every day for three days at each of the three 18-metre (58-foot) high concrete pillars that symbolize Satan.

The pillars stand only 155 metres apart and are generally mobbed as the pilgrims try to get close despite the beefed-up security measures.

According to tradition, Satan appeared on the same site to the Prophet Abraham, his son Ismael and wife Hagar, who each threw seven stones at the devil.

Pilgrims who were at the rite on Sunday gave varying accounts of what took place but all said they would not be deterred.

"I was there and saw 30 to 40 bodies on the ground. But I don't know if they were dead or unconscious," said one young Saudi who declined to give his name.

"What happened this morning did not stop the accomplishing of the hajj rituals. The pilgrims continued to rush in," added Waleed Faydullah, a 32-year-old Egyptian.

The first two days of the pilgrimage had passed without incident under tight security -- although authorities said they arrested in Riyadh on Thursday seven suspected members of a "terror group" planning an attack.

The worst toll of the pilgrimage was in July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a tunnel in Mina. Other deaths have been caused by fires in the pilgrims' camps.

Since King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz acceded to the throne in 1982 and took the title of Guardian of the Two Holy Sites, the government has reported spending more than 100 billion riyals (about 27 billion dollars) to enlarge the shrines at Mecca and Medina, which attract millions of visitors to the Saudi Arabia each year.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam along with faith, prayer, charity and the annual Ramadan fast, climaxed on Saturday on the nearby plain of Arafat where pilgrims prayed for forgiveness, after which they spent the night in the town of Muzdalifa, where they collected their stones, and then headed to Mina.

After the stoning rituals, pilgrims must return to walk seven times round the black-clothed Kaab stone at the heart of the Grand Mosque in Mecca for the final act of the hajj before departing.


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