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More Than 700 Killed in Hajj Stampede, Saudi Government Struggles to Deal with Swelling Crowds

Hajj disasterMore than 700 pilgrims are feared dead after a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia.  The pilgrims were taking part in the annual hajj, a journey that is required of all Muslims. The incident occurred when two groups collided in an intersection in the Mina valley. The stampede also injured more than 850 people and is the deadliest hajj disaster in a quarter of a century. The Guardian reported more than 4,000 rescue workers provided aid to the victims.

The disaster has sparked a contentious exchange between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the country that hosts the hajj. More than 40 Iranians were among the dead and Said Ohadi, head of Iran’s hajj organization, accused the Saudi government of letting the crowds get out of control.

“Today’s incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims,” said Ohadi in an AFP interview. “There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable.”

Saudi health minister Khaled al-Falih blamed the victims for not following instructions.

There are tensions between the two countries because they represent two different sects of Islam. Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni Muslim, while Iran is majority Shia. (The sects differ on who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis say it should have been his father-in-law, while Shias say it should have been his cousin.) The countries also each back different sides in the wars in Yemen and Syria.

The Saudi government has struggled to cope with the increasing size of the hajj crowds. The Guardian reported the hajj attracts between 2-3 million pilgrims annually. More people are able to attend the hajj because of cheaper air fare and rising incomes.

However, this is not the first disaster during hajj. More than 1,400 people were killed during a stampede in 1990. According to The Guardian, Mina is one of the most dangerous parts of the journey. Thousands of people have died in fires and stampedes over the years, forcing the Saudis to step up security. Now pilgrims are told to follow a schedule when they filter through the most crowded areas. Police helicopters and security cameras also monitor the crowds.

According to The Guardian, authorities have grown complacent after a decade without any accidents. Saudi activists say the situation has been exacerbated by disorganization and corruption.

“Maybe it is not normal in other countries, but on account of the corruption that’s going on here in our country anything can easily make a disaster for us. We should expect worse and worse,” said a Mecca-based activist who asked to remain anonymous.

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