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500 killed in stampede at hajj in Saudi Arabia

MINA, Saudi Arabia—At least 500 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year.

The stampede, one of the worst incidents to hit the hajj in nearly a decade, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defense service said.

It said that at least 450 people were hurt and emergency operations were under way in Mina, about five kilometers from Mecca.

It was not immediately clear what had caused the stampede.

Pilgrimage. Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, late on Sept. 20, 2015. The annual hajj pilgrimage begins on Sept. 22, and more than a million faithful have already flocked to Saudi Arabia in preparation for what will for many be the highlight of their spiritual lives. AFP

Helicopters were flying over the area and the sirens of dozens of ambulances could be heard, AFP reporters said.

It was the second major incident this year for hajj pilgrims, after a construction crane collapsed on September 11 at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 109 people including many foreigners.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina on Thursday to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, the ritual that marks the last day of the hajj.

The world’s 1.5 billion Muslims were on Thursday marking Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar.

The hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime.

In the past the pilgrimage was for years marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements. 

In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.

Thursday’s ritual was taking place at a five-storey structure known as the Jamarat Bridge, which cost more than $1 billion to build, and which was used during earlier pilgrimages.

Almost one kilometer long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

The faithful had gathered until dawn Thursday at nearby Muzdalifah where they chose their pebbles and stored them in empty water bottles.

They had spent a day of prayer Wednesday on a vast Saudi plain and Mount Arafat, a rocky hill about 10 kilometers from Mina, for the peak of the hajj pilgrimage.

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