After billions spent on Hajj safety, Saudis lost control of deadly crowd

For nine years, there had been no major disasters at the Hajj, a much lauded success.

Saudi emergency personnel and haj pilgrims stand near bodies covered in sheets at the site where at least hundred were killed and wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual haj in Saudi Arabia on 24 September 2015. Picture: AFP.

DUBAI - Pilgrims reported feeling the hands of their relatives slip away into the crowd on Thursday morning when a crush at the Mina camp in Mecca killed at least 769 in the deadliest Hajj disaster in a generation.

Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on making the world's biggest gathering of people safe. For nine years, there had been no major disasters at the Hajj, a much lauded success after a period from 1990-2006 when crowd crushes and fires that killed hundreds of people took place every 2-3 years.

But Thursday morning's crush - as millions of people tried to reach three walls to pelt them with stones in a ritual intended to drive out Satan - proved that those preparations were inadequate for the world's greatest crowd control challenge.

"There was no way out. You saw parents leaving their children and the elderly to survive," said a Nigerian survivor, Dahiru Shittu Ibrahim, 37.

Saudi Arabia's management of the annual pilgrimage has been a divisive issue in parts of the Muslim world for decades as the haj has grown in scale and danger.

Last week's deaths have brought accusations of culpability, especially from Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran. Iranian television has played video it says shows a motorcade blocking streets as it travelled through Mina that morning. Critics of the Saudi government say the disaster may have been caused by authorities halting crowds to make way for a VIP.

Saudi Arabia strongly denies this and disputes the veracity of the footage. Interior Ministry spokesperson Major General Mansour Turki said police do not close the main pilgrimage routes and no vehicles had passed in areas near the crush any time after early Thursday morning.

Witnesses have described police closing off roads, although they are not able to say why. Closing routes in one location is a standard measure to control crowds building up elsewhere.

Saudi officials have suggested that the crush may have been caused by crowds failing to stick to the complicated schedules laid out by its government to control the movement of millions of people across the site.

An official inquiry into the disaster announced by King Salman is to be carried out by Saudi officials alone.

But whatever the immediate cause of the bottleneck, it appears to have taken place at a location not previously identified as a major choke point, suggesting that the Saudi authorities underestimated the work needed to make the Hajj safe.