Saudi Arabia says at least 717 people dead in hajj stampede

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi Arabia's civil defense directorate says at least 150 people have been killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage. (AP Image)

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — At least 717 people were killed in a stampede Thursday at the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley near the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past.

Thursday’s disaster was the deadliest such incident on the annual hajj pilgrimage in more than two decades, and comes nearly two weeks after a crane collapsed in Mecca, killing 100 people.

The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca that has been the site of past hajj stampedes.

Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone columns. It also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

The civil defense directorate says at least 805 other pilgrims were injured.

PHOTOS: Deadly stampede in Saudi Arabia

Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls. It also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies — the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.

Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.

Photos released by the directorate on its official Twitter account showed rescue workers helping the wounded onto stretchers and loading them onto ambulances near some of the tents.

Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s hajj pilgrimage, which began Tuesday.

Saudi authorities take extensive precautions to ensure the security of the hajj and the safety of pilgrims. But tragedies are not uncommon.

The stampede was the deadliest disaster at the hajj since 2006, when more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in the same area. Another stampede at Mina in 2004 left 244 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured.

Thursday’s stampede happened less than two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the focal point of the hajj.

That accident, on Sept. 11, killed at least 111 people and injured more than 390. Authorities blamed the crane collapse on high winds during an unusually powerful storm.

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