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SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi authorities under fire as death-marred hajj draws to a close

AFP / STR | An aerial view shows tents hosting pilgrims in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on September 25, 2015

As the hajj religious pilgrimage entered its final day Saturday, officials in Saudi Arabia continued to grapple with the aftermath of a collision of pedestrian crowds that killed at least 769 people from various nationalities.

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Iran has strongly criticised arch-rival Saudi Arabia over the disaster, blaming the Saudi government for "incompetence" and "mismanagement" of the annual hajj - which draws about 2 million pilgrims per year from more than 180 countries.

According to an Iranian state TV report, 134 Iranian pilgrims died and 85 were injured in Thursday's incident, while 354 remain missing. Among the missing are Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador to Lebanon, as well as two Iranian state TV reporters and a prominent political analyst.

Iran's state prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi said Saturday he would pursue legal action against Saudi Arabia's rulers in international courts over the deadly stampede, describing the disaster as "a crime" subject to prosecution.

Raisi said Saudi authorities blocked a road used by hajj pilgrims to allow a royal convoy to pass through, causing the deadly convergence of two waves of pilgrims going in opposite directions.

The accusation came a day after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced three days of national mourning, saying "the government of Saudi Arabia must accept the huge responsibility for this catastrophe".

Several African countries confirmed deaths in the stampede, as did India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Netherlands. Moroccan media gave 87 nationals killed.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari urged the Saudi authorities "to ensure a comprehensive and thorough exercise that will identify any flaws in hajj organisation".

Pilgrims 'nor organised or patient'

Pilgrims on Saturday steadily streamed into Mina's Jamarat, a multi-story complex built by the kingdom with crowd-monitoring technology and wide ramps for large crowds to perform the final rites of the hajj. Muslims believe the devil tried to talk the Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham as he is known in the Bible, out of submitting to God's will in Mina. In one of the final steps of the hajj, pilgrims throw stones at three large pillars here in a symbolic casting away of evil.

Saudi security forces were on hand to spray pilgrims with water to help to keep them cool as temperatures reached 100 degrees Farenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Large fans also sprayed water mist to keep the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims performing their hajj rites from over-heating.

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Three Saudi officers from the emergency police force at Jamarat were seen attending to a pilgrim who appeared to have suffered from sunstroke.

Sudanese pilgrim Abdullah al-Muzbahi, 42, stood to the side on one of the floors in Jamarat, with his hands stretched in supplication and prayer, after completing the stoning ritual. He said that from his perspective, this year's hajj went smoothly and that Saudi officials appeared to be doing all they could to safely manage the pilgrimage.

"The problem is in the culture of pilgrims, who are not organised or patient," he said.

Saudi pilgrim Misfir al-Yami, 28, said the large crowds should be directed better to reach certain holy sites in smaller waves. He said it is the responsibility of both the security forces and the pilgrims to ensure the hajj is safe.

Saudi authorities have received the support of the country's most senior cleric, the grand mufti, who said the stampede was "beyond human control" and that the government was not to blame.

"You are not responsible for what happened", Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, in a meeting in Mina on Friday, adding that "fate and destiny are inevitable".

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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