Thursday 23 November 2017

Mecca police accused of incompetence as blame game grows ugly

Iranian worshippers chant slogans while attending an anti-Saudi protest rally , after their Friday prayer service in Tehran.
Iranian worshippers chant slogans while attending an anti-Saudi protest rally , after their Friday prayer service in Tehran.

Jenny Furlong in Riyadh

A BLAME game has begun over who was responsible for the stampede that resulted in more than 700 deaths at the hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, thousands of Iranian worshippers marched in Tehran after Friday prayers to denounce the "incompetency" of Saudi Arabia in handling the annual hajj pilgrimage. Worshippers also said they were afraid to continue the rituals.

The worst tragedy in 25 years at the annual Muslim pilgrimage occurred during the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina, just outside the holy city of Mecca.

At least 717 people were killed and 863 people were hurt, spurring King Salman to order a review of hajj organisation while authorities started an investigation.

The Saudi Arabian health minister blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy, but worshippers disagreed.

"There was crowding. The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims' camp, leaving only one," said Ahmed Abu Bakr, a 45-year-old Libyan who escaped the stampede with his mother.

"I saw dead bodies in front of me and injuries and suffocation. We removed the victims with the police."

He added that police at the scene appeared inexperienced. "They don't even know the roads and the places around here," he said.

Pilgrims in Mina stay in a complex of white, fireproof tents big enough to hold more than two million people, and the interior ministry said it deployed 100,000 police to secure the hajj, maintain safety and manage traffic and crowds.

One critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said despite the large numbers, police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the hajj.

"They don't have a clue how to engage with these people," said Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

"There's no crowd control," he said.

Nigeria's Emir of Kano rejected the suggestion, saying that pilgrims should not be travelling on the same road as those who have finished performing the ritual. "They should not cross each other," Muhammad Sanusi said.

"We are therefore urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame to the pilgrims for not obeying instructions."

Barr Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammed, chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, said it would be apparent from an investigation that the pilgrims could not be blamed.

"At this time of electronic age and the closed-circuit cameras installed in Mecca and the environment, the authorities can easily know how the stampede started and what caused it,'' he was quoted as saying by Nigeria's 'Punch' newspaper.

A Kenyan survivor said that his group lost three people.

"I can blame the Saudi government because they did not control (the situation). I was there. I survived," a tearful Isaac Saleh said.

Irish Independent

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