Updated at 3:55 p.m. ET on 2015-09-24
In the deadliest incident at the Hajj pilgrimage in 25 years, more than 700 people were killed and at least 800 injured in a crush of Muslim worshippers Thursday near the holy city of Mecca, according to news reports.
According to the latest figures reported by the Saudi Press Agency, the toll from the stampede at “street number 204 in Mina” had risen to 717 dead and 805 wounded.
The crush occurred as two large groups of pilgrims were converging at a crossroads, while on their way to perform the “Stoning the Devil” ritual at Jamarat, according to Reuters.
“The incident is thought to have occurred because pilgrims carrying out jumroh Aqabah (Stoning the Devil) suddenly stopped,” Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs said in a statement carried by the state-run Antara news service.
“Because they had stopped, pilgrims behind them began pushing people in front of them, so that many women and elderly people fell and became victims,” the ministry statement said.
Three Indonesians were among the more than 700 pilgrims killed, according to Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Saiffudin.
“So far two Indonesian have been found dead and another one whose identity is still being traced,” Lukman said via his Twitter account.
At least one Indian died and 21were injured, India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said at press time. The dead person was identified as Jaanbibi Majeed, a 60-year-old woman from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.
"We will provide all help to Indian nationals. Two of our officials have reached the site of the accident. We are in constant touch with them," External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said.
About 130,000 Indians had undertaken the trip to Mecca, according to the MEA.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "Distressing news from Mecca. Pained at loss of lives due to the stampede. Condolences to families of the deceased & prayers with the injured."
In Bangladesh, local news outlets reported that nine Bangladeshi pilgrims were injured in the stampede, one fatally. BDNews24 identified the dead pilgrim as Firoza Khanom, a primary school teacher from Jamalpur district.
At press time, there were no confirmed deaths among pilgrims from Thailand or Malaysia.
Second Hajj tragedy in 2015
The stampede was the second deadly incident to mar this year’s Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city in Saudi Arabia, raising questions about public safety procedures and crowd control policies around the Hajj. Nearly two million Muslims from across the globe had arrived in the kingdom to take part in the pilgrimage, according to Agence France-Presse.
On Sept. 11, 109 people were killed when a crane collapsed on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, amid heavy rain and strong winds, according to Agence France-Presse.
On Thursday, Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed undisciplined pilgrims for the latest incident, saying it would not have occurred if they "had followed instructions," El-Ekhbariya television quoted him as saying, AFP reported.
"Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables" established by authorities, which was the "principal reason for this type of accident," he said.
"If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided," al-Falih added.
Crown prince launches probe
Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif Abdulaziz called for the formation of a high-level committee to investigate the disaster, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “was deeply saddened to learn of the death of more than 700 Hajj pilgrims and of injuries to many others as a result of a deadly incident in the Mina Valley in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” a statement by his spokesman said.
“At this time, during the blessed holiday of [Eid-ul-Adha], the United States stands in support of Muslims around the world in the wake of this terrible tragedy,” said a statement issued by the U.S. State Department.
However, while condolences poured in from abroad, so did criticism directed at Saudi Arabia’s handling of the huge-scale pilgrimage.
“Today’s incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims. There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable,” AFP quoted Said Ohaidi, head of Iran’s Hajj organization, as saying.
The Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, lost 90 of its citizens in the stampede.
Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation and a critic of redevelopment projects at the holy sites, pointed to the issue of crowd control and the kingdom’s development strategy as creating unsafe conditions at Saudi Arabia’s holy sites, according to AFP.
"Yes, they have tried to improve facilities, but the priority for health and safety always fails" as development takes priority, Alawi told AFP.
Thursday’s preliminary death toll was the highest since July 2, 1990, when 1,426 Hajj pilgrims died in a stampede inside a tunnel in Mina.
Both stampedes took place on Eid-ul-Adha, one of Islam’s most important holy days, when it is customary for Muslim on the Haj pilgrimage to participate in the stoning ritual, according to Reuters.
Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata and Rohit Wadhwaney contributed to this report.