Stricken families were hunting for their loved ones yesterday after a stampede that killed hundreds of Muslims at the hajj, a disaster Saudi authorities have blamed on unruly pilgrims.
In the absence of an official list of casualties, families continued to seek news of their missing relatives among the dead and wounded of the worst stampede during the Muslim pilgrimage since 1,426 pilgrims were killed in 1990.
At least 345 people were trampled to death and almost 300 injured on Thursday as they tripped over luggage in a scramble to hurl pebbles at symbols of Satan on the last day of the annual pilgrimage, Saudi officials said.
Riyadh blamed the stampede on unruly pilgrims from outside officially-sanctioned operators.
But some witnesses said police triggered the chaos by suddenly blocking the entrance to a bridge, and others reported panic among pilgrims about when they should perform the last rite of hajj in which some 2.5 million took part.
Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz said in remarks published yesterday by the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the stoning ceremony had been taking place for several days without problems.
"But what happened is that more than 12 people were carrying a large amount of baggage on their backs, so when it became too crowded they fell on the ground one on top of the other," he said.
"People kept falling one on top of the other until about 300 people died," he said.
"Our pilgrim brothers are forbidden from carrying baggage and workloads on their shoulders during the stoning ritual," he added.
On Thursday, Saudi Health Minister, Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Maneh said the stampede was caused by "unruly pilgrims, and a problem of luggage."
Interior ministry spokesman Mansur Al-Turki also said the accident occurred "because of the luggage that fell and led to a rush at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat bridge," where the pilgrims stone the three pillars.
The stoning of Satan is the riskiest episode of the hajj as the pilgrims jostle to make sure their pebbles touch the pillar while the weaker ones risk being trampled on by the masses.
The latest tragedy comes days after 76 people were killed when a hostel in the heart of Mecca collapsed last week.
Almost 60,000 security, health, emergency and other personnel were involved in organizing this year's hajj, trying to prevent the deadly incidents that have marred it in recent years from being repeated.
The ritual, which is spread out over three days, marks the final part of the hajj pilgrimage for the more than two million Muslim pilgrims who have flocked to Mecca from around the world.
The hajj, which follows a journey by Prophet Mohammed over 1,400 years ago, is one of the five pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-life time duty for those able to complete it.