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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 February, 2004, 22:38 GMT
Hundreds killed in Hajj stampede
Pilgrims stoning pillar representing devil
The stoning of the pillars is the most dangerous part of the Hajj
A stampede at the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has left at least 244 people dead, the largest number killed at the event since 1997.

The Hajj minister, Iyad Madani, said a comparable number of pilgrims were injured during the 27-minute stampede.

The disaster happened on Sunday as pilgrims flocked to the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, near Mecca, to hurl stones at pillars representing the devil.

Up to two million people went to this year's event in and around Mecca.

The Hajj - a key obligation for Muslim faithful - continued despite the disaster.

Mr Madani said most of the victims were from inside Saudi Arabia and many had not been authorised to participate.

An unnamed Saudi security official said most of the dead were Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, Reuters reported.

1997: Fire kills 343 pilgrims and injures 1,500 at camp in Mina
1994: Stampede near Jamarat bridge kills at least 270 pilgrims
1990: Stampede in crowded tunnel leading to holy sites kills 1,426 pilgrims
1987: About 400 killed - mainly Iranian Shia pilgrims - in clashes with Saudi forces

Thirteen Egyptians were among the dead and four South Africans are reported missing, the news agency said.

In an effort to control the numbers at the Hajj, Saudi Arabia sets quotas for pilgrims from each country and requires its citizens to register.

"There was more than 400 metres of people pushing in the same direction (which) resulted in the collapse of those next to the stoning area... and those behind. That led to panic," he said.

Mr Madani, quoted by Reuters news agency, said some pilgrims were "not organised" and their personal belongings had caused obstructions.

The stoning ritual is usually the most dangerous part of the Hajj - last year 14 pilgrims were crushed to death during it, and 35 died in a 2001 stampede.

During the ritual, pilgrims throw stones at the pillars - called Jamarat al Aqaba, Jamarat al Wusta and Jamarat al Ula - before beginning the religious feast of Eid al-Adha, when animals are sacrificed.

Click here to see where the stampede took place

As rescuers went to the scene, security officials attempted to control the crowds to prevent further crushing.

Physically exhausted after three days of rites, pilgrims surged forward to cast their stones.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crossed over and under the 15-metre (50-foot) bridge spanning a small valley between two cliffs at Mina.

My mom, brother, and brother-in-law are performing Hajj this year. I am extremely worried
Arif Chowdhury, College Station, Texas, USA

Pilgrims converged on the main pillar from all directions, shouting "God is greatest!" while others chanted "Harder! Harder!" as the faithful threw their stones, Reuters reported.

Such was the size of the crowd that most pilgrims were unaware of what had happened, the BBC's Paul Simpson reports from Jeddah.

"I assure you that all the preparations are always made, but we don't always know God's intentions. What happened will be evaluated," Mr Madani said.

He said another 272 pilgrims had died of natural causes during the Hajj.

All able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford it.

Jamarat bridge, where the stampede took place

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The BBC's John Simpson
"The Government has spent billions on preventing big disasters"

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