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The BBC's Fergus Nicoll
"Several billion dollars have been spent in the past decade on improving Hajj facilities"
 real 56k

Monday, 5 March, 2001, 15:06 GMT
Pilgrims killed in Mecca stampede
hajj
Crowds surge forward during a stone-throwing ritual
Thirty-five Muslim pilgrims have been killed in a stampede as the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, reached its climax.

They died during the Stoning of Satan ritual on Monday, near the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, state-run Saudi television reported.

Hajj disasters
1998: At least 118 trampled to death
1997: 343 pilgrims die and 1,500 injured in fire
1994: 270 killed in a stampede as worshippers surged forwards during the Stoning the Devil.
1990: 1,426 pilgrims killed in overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites
1987: 400 die in Iranian-Saudi confrontation
It said the pilgrims died as a huge crowd rushed toward one of the three giant pillars representing the devil in the Mina valley, near the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.

It is the latest in a series of disasters to strike the pilgrimage: In 1998, at least 118 people died and more than 180 were injured in a stampede during the third and last day of the stoning ceremony.

'Heavy congestion'

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from 160 countries took part in the ritual, which marks the first day of the Islamic feast of Al-Adha (sacrifice).

Men dressed in seamless white robes and women covered from head to foot each cast seven pebbles at the columns.

"Because of heavy congestion and jostling between pilgrims, many pilgrims, especially the elderly, tripped and fell, leading to the deaths of 35 pilgrims of different nationalities," a civil defence official said.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims join the next leg of the Hajj
The Saudi authorities put security measures in place after previous disasters
"Some of them suffocated to death while others were trampled before security forces restored order."

He said the tragedy occurred at around 0800 (0500 GMT).

Since the last disaster, the Saudi authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on safety precautions.

They have constructed tens of thousands of fireproof tents and introduced ways of staggering the flow of pilgrims through certain congested areas.

Forgiveness

This year nearly two million pilgrims are performing the Hajj, somewhat fewer than last year.

Performing the Hajj at least once in a lifetime is one of the five "pillars", or duties, of Islam.

As part of measures to avoid a crush, elderly pilgrims had a head start Sunday night on the stoning ritual.

Earlier on Sunday, some 1.8 million faithful had climbed Mount Arafat - the site of Muhammad's last sermon 14 centuries ago - to pray for forgiveness.

Like Muslims around the world, the pilgrims also slaughter sheep, goats, camels and cattle for the start of the feast of Al-Adha to mark Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

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