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Over two hundred Indians die in Haj fire

Sonny Abraham in Dubai

Over two hundred Indians were feared killed in a devastating fire that swept across an encampment for Muslim pilgrims at Mina in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on the eve of this year's Haj pilgrimage.

Saudi officials on Wednesday night said the death toll in the devastating fire has risen to 343. More than 1,300 others were injured in the blaze, which gutted more than 70,000 tents set up for the pilgrims.

''It is a big tragedy. The number of Indians killed alone would run into three figures," Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mohammed Hamid Ansari told United News of India in a telephone interview from Mecca.

Ansari said the estimate of the number of Indian victims was based on detailed inquiries made by Indian officials at Mina.

Control rooms functioning round-the-clock, have been set up by the Indian embassy at Jeddah, Mina and Riyadh to provide information about the Indian pilgrims.

These control rooms may be contacted at the following telephone numbers:

Control room, Jeddah: 00-966-2-652-0104

Control room, Mina: 00-966-2-557-2710

Control room, Riyadh: 00-966-1-488-4189

Information about the pilgrims can also be obtained at the following telephone numbers in India:

Central Haj Committee, Bombay: 022-261 2989/21 8862/267 0183/267 8398

Delhi Haj Committee, New Delhi: 011-323 4041/323 0507

Haj Cell, ministry of external affairs: 011-301 3205

Airport police, Bombay: 022-6117276

Deputy commissioner of police (emigration), Bombay: 022-8343439

Ambasador Ansari said one of the Indian camps was among those worst affected by the fire, close to where it started. Other Indian camps were also affected by the flames.

"It just did not give a chance to people to escape", he said, adding that it would take quite some time for an accurate figure to become available.

"Most of the bodies are charred," he said, pointing out identification of the victims was difficult at this stage. The task would be more difficult because the rest of the 90,000 Indian pilgrims are on the move for the next day or two.

Apart from the fact that the bodies of the victims had been charred beyond recognition, the task of identifying them was made more difficult by the fact that the plastic identification bands worn by them on their wrists had been burnt in the fire.

"Even getting a head count of those missing is difficult in the circumstances. We will have to collate information from a variety of sources", he said.

Indian officials had visited hospitals and morgues in the area as part of the efforts to gather some information about the victims. "We will continue that exercise," he said.

Official sources quoted the Indian mission in Jeddah as saying that it would take at least three days to establish the identity of the dead.

The ambassador said he was present in Mina when the fire broke out. "Our embassy's control centre was one of the tents completely destroyed in the fire," he said.

Ambassador Ansari said at least 30 of the injured were identified as Indians. "But that number is by no means exhaustive", he pointed out.

Afzal Amanullah, the Indian consul general in Jeddah, said an Indian medical team, comprising 100 doctors, 100 paramedical personnel and 400 volunteers, is helping in the relief efforts, including the supply of medicines and food.

Most of the Indians who died are said to be from Western Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar, M Afzal, former member of the Haj committee claimed in Delhi.

Quoting pilgrims and members of the Haj delegation, he said scores of bodies were seen scattered outside the Indian camps, which were gutted in the blaze. Most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition, he said.

The worst affected, Afzal disclosed, was camp 59, which houses pilgrims from Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and other parts of Western Uttar Pradesh. This camp was reduced to ashes in the fire. Camps 64 and 67 were also badly damaged, but most of the pilgrims escaped the flames.

Some of the Indians are believed to have died in the stampede, as pilgrims tried to run to safety.

One pilgrim from Bangalore told Associated Press by cellular telephone: "We were preparing for the afternoon namaz when we saw a small fire in a tent about one kilometre away. The harsh sun and gusty desert winds soon fanned the flames and it spread. Men panicked and ran in every direction."

"But very soon many fire trucks and helicopters arrived to fight the blaze,'' the witness, who gave his name only as Irfan, said.

Egypt's Middle East News Agency said that witnesses reported hearing explosions of gas cylinders, which are used by the pilgrims for cooking, and suggested this could have been the cause of the fire.

Television pictures from Mina, eleven kilometres from Mecca, showed fleets of fire engines engaged in fire fighting operations, aided by helicopters. Hundreds of pilgrims were seen rushing to safety from the burning tents.

According to the Jeddah-based Arab News, the fire started from the tents of local pilgrims and quickly spread to Iranian tents because of the strong winds. From there it spread to tents housing pilgrims from South Asia and Africa, the newspaper said.

Minister of State for Home Mohammad Maqbool Dar was one of those who escaped the fire. He was at Mina along with other members of the Indian goodwill delegation when the fire swept the camps. The minister and the others ran to safety and were later escorted to the hotel by Saudi officials.

External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral has directed a three-member team -- K Ragunath, secretary (east) in the external affairs ministry, R Dayakar, joint secretary (Gulf and Haj ) and Azhar Khan, officer on special duty at the ministry -- to rush to Saudi Arabia immediately to ensure that prompt assistance is rendered to the pilgrims.

Four Air-India 747s are on standby in Bombay to bring back the injured and the bodies of the dead, sources in New Delhi said.

The sources said the planes would bring back pilgrims who wished to return to India immediately. However, the bodies would be brought only after the identity of the dead had been established.

''Even if the identity of the dead is established, we will have to find out from the next of kin of the deceased if the body is to be buried there or should be flown to India'', the sources said.

The fire started around 1145 hours local time (1415 IST). Fanned by heavy winds, the fire spread quickly, and was brought under control after five hours by firefighters backed by emergency helicopters. Eyewitnesses said the fire spread quickly from one tent to another. All roads to Mina were closed to help in the fire-fighting efforts.

Encampments for the Haj are set up by nationality. Workers later swept away the charred remains of hundreds of air conditioners, mattresses and burned pages of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

Witnesses said they saw hundreds of bodies. Reporters for a local Saudi newspaper said most of the dead were trampled in the panic caused by the fire.

Hundreds of thousands of people were left stranded by the fire on the arid plains of Mina outside Mecca, the witnesses said. Earlier, security forces had thrown up a cordon around Mina, closing off the city to new arrivals to prevent further overcrowding.

The first official word on the casualties came almost ten hours after the fire erupted.

The two million pilgrims performing the Haj this year include about one million Muslims from abroad, who reached the kingdom by air, land and sea. The rest of the pilgrims are from different parts of Saudi Arabia.

Many of the pilgrims had moved from Mecca to Mina on Tuesday, where they spent the night before proceeding to Mount Arafat early on Wednesday morning.

The standing on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon in the 7th century, is the climax of the Haj. All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it must perform the pilgrimage once in their lifetime.

The Haj has been overshadowed by tragedy in recent years.

Two years ago, a fire started by a gas stove in Mina destroyed scores of tents, but no casualties were reported.

In 1994 hundreds of pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were killed in a stampede as worshippers surged toward a cavern for the symbolic ritual of 'stoning the devil.'

In 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, were killed and 649 injured in Mecca when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranians staging anti-US demonstrations.

"Woh informationabhi tak hamare paas aaya nahin hain, bhai"

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