Thirty-five Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede during the "Stoning of Satan" ritual on Monday near the holy city of Mecca, the third such tragedy in less than a decade, Saudi officials said.
The stampede that marred the start of the Muslim feast of Al-Adha (sacrifice), which coincides with the three-day stoning ritual also left an unspecified number of pilgrims slightly injured, the Saudi civil defense force said.
It said 23 women and 12 men of different nationalities died as a huge crowd rushed toward one of the three giant pillars representing the devil in the Mina valley near the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad in Mecca.
Pilgrims have to approach the pillars so as to hit the mark with their stones, as laid down by Islam.
"Because of heavy congestion and jostling between pilgrims, many pilgrims, especially the elderly, tripped and fell, leading to the deaths of 35 pilgrims of different nationalities," the civil defense said.
"Some of them suffocated to death while others were trampled," before security forces restored order, it said, adding that the latest tragedy to hit the annual "Hajj" pilgrimage occurred at around 8:00 am (0500 GMT).
It was the first such deadly incident at the Hajj since April 1998, when at least 118 pilgrims died and more than 180 were injured in a stampede during the same Mina ritual.
In May 1994, 270 pilgrims were killed as crowds surged forward during the Stoning of Satan. Authorities blamed the record number of pilgrims.
After the 1998 disaster, Saudi religious authorities extended the stone-throwing to cover the entire day rather than the previous custom of completing the ritual before midday prayers at Mecca's Grand Mosque.
Muslims from 160 countries, to cries of "Allah Akhbar" (God is Great), hurled stones at the pillars on Monday, as Saudi authorities announced a revised figure of 1.8 million pilgrims for this year's Hajj.
King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, in a message carried by the official Saudi news agency SPA before news of the tragedy emerged, congratulated the pilgrims and wished travelers from abroad a safe return to their countries.
As part of measures to avoid a crush, elderly pilgrims had a head start Sunday night on the stoning ritual. On Monday, each group of 200,000 was allowed one hour to pass through the area.
The site at Mina in present-day western Saudi Arabia is where Abraham, his wife Hagar and their son Ismail are said to have thrown seven stones each at the devil when he appeared before them.
After Sunday's climax to the pilgrimage at Mount Arafat, where 1.8 million faithful prayed for forgiveness at the site of Mohammad's last sermon 14 centuries ago, the pilgrims moved to Muzdalifah to gather stones unloaded there by trucks.
Like Muslims around the world, the pilgrims also slaughter sheep, goats, camels and cattle for Monday's start of the feast of Al-Adha to mark Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.
Saudi authorities have set up a huge abattoir with a workforce of almost 46,000 people, including veterinary surgeons, to oversee the slaughter of around 700,000 sheep, goats, cows and camels during the Eid (feast).
A total of 1.364 million pilgrims have traveled from abroad for this year's Hajj pilgrimage, up from 1.267 million in 2000 and 1.056 million in 1999, according to Saudi authorities.
They joined 441,000 pilgrims living in the kingdom for the Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim with the financial means is required to make the Hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Before the stampede, Saudi Arabia had reported no serious incidents during this year's Hajj, following two previous years that were free of disaster amid a tightening of security measures -- MINA, Saudi Arabia (AFP)
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