PILGRIM STAMPEDE: Death Toll Rises To 717

Death toll has risen to 717 pilgrims in a stampede outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi authorities said.

This is reported to be the worst disaster to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in 25 years.

At least 805 others were injured in the crush at Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca, caused by two large groups of pilgrims arriving together at a crossroads on their way to performing the "stoning the devil" ritual at Jamarat, Saudi civil defence said.

Thursday's disaster was the worst to befall the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Mecca. Both stampedes occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.

Photographs published on the Twitter feed of the Saudi civil defence on Thursday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance.

The haj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past, but their frequency was greatly reduced in recent years as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding haj infrastructure and crowd control technology.

Safety during haj is a politically sensitive issue for the kingdom's ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.

Unverified video posted on Twitter showed bodies, clad in the white towelling of those undertaking haj, lying on the ground by the side of the road, surrounded by debris, as pilgrims and rescue workers attempted to revive them.
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