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update : Stampede at Mecca: 717 pilgrims dead, over 850 injured

MINA: The death toll in the Thursday morning stampede in Mina has risen to 717 and officials feared that the number could still increase. Saudi Civil Defense forces said 863 more pilgrims have been injured.

The exact cause of the accident could not be determined immediately. Many of the injured were in semiconscious state. The harsh summer weather has only added to the problem. The injured were not in a position to speak.

Sirens were wailing as the ambulances brought in the injured. Hundreds of Saudi security forces and Haj volunteers are at hand helping the injured. Most of the injured were taken to Mina Emergency Hospital. Other were also rushed to the hospitals in Makkah. Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies — the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during Haj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.

Pictures taken later by Arab News photographers showed bodies piled on top of each other near a gate leading to the Jamrat. Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.

Beause of the tragedy, security officials closed the Jamrat area, where the pilgrims have to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual. The Jamrat has seen stampedes in the past. But the Saudi authorities have expanded the area by constructing a multilayered complex to ease the flow of pilgrims.

The pilgrims had spent the night in Muzdalifa and had come to Mina to throw seven pea-sized stoned at one of the three wall-like structures.

Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s Haj pilgrimage, which began Tuesday. The stampede was the deadliest disaster at the Haj since 2006, when more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in the same area. Another stampede at Mina in 2004 left 244 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured. Thursday’s stampede happened less than two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the focal point of the Haj.

That accident, on Sept. 11, killed at least 111 people and injured more than 390. Authorities blamed the crane collapse on high winds during an unusually powerful storm.

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