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|April 11, 1998||
23 Indians killed in Haj stampede identified
As many as 23 of the 24 Indians killed in Thursday's stampede near Mina in Saudi Arabia on the last day of this year's Haj have been identified so far, a senior Indian official said today.
Indian ambassador in Saudi Arabia Mohammed Hamid Ansari told UNI over the telephone from Jeddah that one of the victims, believed to be an Indian, was yet to be identified.
A list of the 23 identified Indians and 12 others who were injured in the incident, was released by the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi today.
Ansari said inquiries made by Indian officials at the morgue and hospitals in Mina indicated that the number of Indian victims would not rise any further.
Saudi authorities said the tragedy, which occurred during the ritual of 'stoning the devil', claimed 118 lives in all.
But media reports from Mecca, quoting Saudi doctors, said 180 people were killed and more than 250 injured.
Apart from the Indians, the victims also included nine Pakistanis, nine Turks, seven Algerians, five Saudis, three Moroccans, three Bangladeshis, two Indonesians, two Egyptians and one Kuwaiti, reports said.
Earlier reports had suggested that some Malaysians were also among the casualties but Malaysian officials have said all 21,000 Malaysian pilgrims were safe.
The rest of the victims were yet to be identified, and the task was made more difficult by the fact that many of them had lost the metal wrist bands worn by them for identification purposes.
Indian officials said most of the Indians killed in the incident would be buried in Mecca in keeping with the wishes of their families.
Ansari said Indian officials were now preparing for the return flights of the Indian pilgrims, which are due to begin tomorrow and will continue till mid-May.
As many as 97,000 Indians travelled to Saudi Arabia for this year's Haj, about two-thirds of them through the Central Haj Committee.
In all, nearly two million people from around the world performed the pilgrimage this year.
Media reports from Mecca suggested that the stampede occurred because many pilgrims, surging forward to take part in the ritual of throwing pebbles at three pillars symbolising the devil, had ignored instructions from security forces.
General Ahmad Bilal, director-general of public security, was quoted as saying that some 700,000 pilgrims had crowded at Jamraat, the site of the ritual, at midday on Thursday.
"The number was frightening and the crowd advanced like a torrent," he was quoted as saying.
He said some security officers trying to control the crowd were trampled on and hospitalised.
"What can the government do if the pilgrims do not follow the instructions?" he asked.
About 2,000 policemen cordoned off the area of the stampede and helped evacuate the victims to hospitals, the reports said.
According to them, many pilgrims, especially Asians, tended not to believe in a symbolic throw and rush to get close enough for the pebbles to strike the pillars.
Initial reports had said that the stampede occurred when some of the elderly and sick pilgrims stumbled and fell, leading to a panic.
While many were trampled on, others fell to their death from an elevated walkway.
About 270 pilgrims, including many Indians, had died in a similar stampede during the Haj in May 1994.
Last year, a devastating fire at an encampment for pilgrims in Mina killed at least 343 pilgrims, including about 200 Indians.
Scores of people, including diplomats, flocked to hospitals in Mina to look for friends and relatives and to identify the victims.
The task of identifying those killed was made difficult by the fact that many of them had lost the metal wrist bands they were wearing for purposes of identification.
An official Saudi statement said 107 people died on the spot and 11 in hospital. It said the tragedy occurred around 1240 hours local time (1415 hours IST) near a bridge between Mina and Jamraat, the site of the ritual.
The statement did not give any figure for the injured, but sources said about 200 people were hurt in the incident.
It said the final death toll and the nationalities of the victims would be announced later.
It said security forces had made 'extraordinary efforts' to save the pilgrims but their task was made difficult by the huge crowds.
The three-day ritual of throwing stones at three pillars, symbolising the devil, had begun on Tuesday.
Media reports quoted a witness as saying that thousands of pilgrims were waiting for the police to open a raised walkway so that they could cast their stones.
Pilgrims at the front of the queue, including many elderly, sat down to rest, they said.
When the police signalled that the walkway was open, the pilgrims surged forward. Those in the front were trampled upon, the witness said.
The reports quoted witnesses as saying that some pilgrims fell off the five-metre-high walkway.
The bridge had been widened from 40 metres to 80 metres after the 1994 stampede, regional news agencies said.
"We seek god's mercy for those who died and patience for their families," the official Saudi Press Agency said.
The dead and injured were taken to the Mina general hospital. Many pilgrims were treated for injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken limbs, the reports said, quoting a doctor.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pilgrims attended Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca yesterday before preparing to return home.
E Ahmad, MP, who is currently at Mecca, said at least 30 Indians were still missing.
He told UNI over the telephone that a search was continuing for the Indians, and mission officials, including doctors, were visiting mortuaries to identify bodies.
Ahmad, the Muslim League MP from Manjeri in Kerala, said relatives of two of the victims had claimed the bodies and buried them at Mecca itself.
The MP praised the Indian mission and volunteers from India who were working round-the-clock to help the pilgrims.
According to him, about 64,000 pilgrims had come from India with the Haj Committee but many more had come on their own. It would be difficult to trace whether any of these pilgrims who had come privately were among the dead.
He said the Saudi authorities were extending all help to the Indian volunteers. The authorities had built a human wall to keep the pilgrims from rushing, but the stampede occurred due to 'ignorance and over-enthusiasm', he added.
Ahmad, a former Kerala minister who has represented Manjeri thrice in Parliament, said he would stay at Mecca to help the authorities in relief operations.
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