SHAFAQNA – Saudi ArabiaÂ has found itself under increasing pressure to improve safety for pilgrims in the wake of the deaths of at least 717 people in a stampede outside Mecca at the annual Muslim hajj.
More than 850 people were also wounded in the crush during the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina,Â the worst tragedy during the hajj for 25 years. It was the second deadly accident affecting Mecca worshipers this month, after aÂ crane collapse in the holy city killed more than 100.
While officials in Riyadh have been keen to deflect blame onto pilgrims, arguing that the tragedy took place after groups refused to conform to security measures and instructions, evidences have appeared pointing to a different root cause altogether.
The Arabic-languageÂ dailyÂ al-Diyar saidÂ in a report on Thursday that the convoy ofÂ Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al SaudÂ played a central roleÂ in the deadly crush on the third day of the annual Hajj pilgrimage earlier in the day.
The report said that Salman, who had soughtÂ to attend the huge gathering of pilgrims in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca,Â arrived atÂ the site early on Thursday accompanied by a hugeÂ entourage.
The report also mentioned that 200 soldiers and 150 police officers escorted the prince, thus leading to a dangerous cluster at a site already under a great deal of traffic.
The report noted that the presence of the prince in the middle of the population prompted a change in the direction of the movement of the pilgrims and a stampede.
The Lebanese daily further saidÂ that Salman and his entourage swiftly abandonedÂ the scene, adding that the Saudi authorities seekÂ to hush up the entire story and impose a media blackout on Salmanâ€™s presence in the area.
However, officials in Saudi Arabia have deniedÂ the report, calling it “incorrect.” The Saudi health minister has blamedÂ the pilgrimsÂ for the tragedy. “If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided,” Khaled al-Falih said.
According to Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization more thanÂ 1,300 people, including 125 Iranians,Â were killedÂ in theÂ crush. This as Saudi officials put the death toll atÂ 717 and the number of injured atÂ 863.
Answering his criticsÂ Saudi Arabiaâ€™sÂ King Salman has ordered an urgent safety review into the causes of the crush, to be chaired by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Salman admitted there was a need â€œto improve the level of organisation and management of movementâ€ of pilgrims, amid pressure from two of the most influential Islamic nations, Iran and Indonesia. His comments came in direct calls from clerics and world leaders to hand the management of Mecca and Medina to a grand council.
Outrage among Muslims has grown over the past 24 hours as reports have also surfaced suggesting that King Salman intends to round up those his administration allegedly holds responsible for the Mina accident.
“This religious decree will be issued immediately in Mina tomorrow; they will be charged with violating security issues and disobeying orders which claimed the lives of more than 1000 pilgrims and brought disrepute for Saudi authorities,” wrote al-Diyar daily, a Lebanon-based media organization.
Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has declared three days of national mourning following the incident while urging the Saudi government to â€œshoulder its heavy responsibilityâ€ in the stampede and â€œmeet its obligations in compliance with the rule of righteousness and fairness.â€
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Thursday that Saudi Arabia should be held accountable over the death of the pilgrims. He said that the fatal crush started after Saudi security forces blocked two streets while the pilgrims were walking towards the final ritual of the Hajj.
“We can by no means remain indifferent towards Saudi Arabia’s irresponsible behavior,” said Amir-Abdollahian, adding, â€œThe tactlessness on the part of relevant Saudi authorities to provide security for the pilgrims cannot be overlooked.â€