Saudis seek to deflect blame on hajj deaths

Saudi Arabia, under growing pressure to account for a crush that killed more than 700 people at the hajj pilgrimage, suggested pilgrims failing to follow crowd control rules bore some blame for the worst disaster at the event for 25 years.

Saudis seek to deflect blame on hajj deaths

The kingdom’s regional rival Iran expressed outrage at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world’s largest annual gathering of people, and politicians in Tehran suggested Riyadh was incapable of managing the event.

“Death to the Saudi dynasty!” hundreds of demonstrators chanted at a protest in the Iranian capital Tehran.

Saudi health minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll of dead and wounded calculated. At least 863 pilgrims were injured.

“The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced as has happened in other incidents,” Falih said in a statement.

Falih’s comments were likely to be seen by the kingdom’s critics as an attempt to deflect responsibility for the incident.

Safety during hajj is politically sensitive for the kingdom’s Al Saud dynasty, since the ruling family presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.

With photographs of piles of the dead circulating on social media and pilgrims frantically searching for missing compatriots, the effort to uncover the facts and assign blame was likely to grow more acute and possibly more political.

The disaster appeared to put pilgrims on edge.

Hakim, from Morocco, said: “It is simply scary to hear how people crushed one another. More frightening is that we do not know how it happened.”

A pilgrim who asked to be identified only as Abu Abdallah said security forces appeared on high alert after the deaths.

“What happened is a tragedy and many people... are terrified, but in the end we can only pursue our hajj duties.”

Saudi King Salman ordered a review of hajj plans after the disaster, in which two big groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few miles east of Mecca, on their way to performing the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual at Jamarat.

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, echoed supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in blaming Saudi Arabia for the incident.

“I ask the Saudi Arabian government to take responsibility for this catastrophe and fulfill its legal and Islamic duties in this regard,” Rouhani said in a statement published on the state news agency IRNA.

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