CAIRO - A stampede on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia left at least 717 people dead and more than 800 injured, in the deadliest tragedy to strike the annual Hajj pilgrimage in a quarter-century.
Video from the scene showed bodies strewn across the ground alongside the wounded and weeping in Mina on a narrow road alongside rows of tents housing visitors to the annual hajj, five kilometers east of Mecca.
Saudi officials say the incident occurred Thursday in Mina where pilgrims throw rocks at pillars representing the devil in the final hajj ritual before beginning the Eid al-Adha festival.
As foot traffic flowed one way mid-morning, a small group turned around, creating an unintentional clash that crushed men and women, old and young, reporter Nasiru Adamu El-Hikaya told VOA from the scene of the stampede.
The country's Health Minister Khalid al-Falih blamed pilgrims, saying they failed to follow instructions from authorities.
Reviewing lists of visiting pilgrims
By Thursday evening, emergency workers had removed nearly all of the bodies to nearby hospitals, where authorities are trying to identify the deceased, El-Hikaya said. Countries are reviewing their lists of visiting pilgrims to help determine who the victims are.
The official estimate of Hajj participants is around 2 million, with unofficial figures as high as 3 million.
The stampede is the second deadly accident to hit the pilgrims this month following a crane collapse that killed 109 people in Mecca.
Multiple deadly stampedes have happened during Hajj before, as millions gather from around the world for the multi-day event required once of Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca.
The worst disaster happened in 1990 when a stampede in a Mina tunnel killed more than 1,400 people. Similar accidents occurred in 1994, 2004 and 2006, each killing more than 200 people.
Saudi TV reported that the Governor of Mecca, Prince Khaled al Faisal, had gone to the site of the stampede to oversee rescue operations. The prince told the TV that many African pilgrims were caught in the crush.
A survivor of the stampede explained that he was caught in an unusually heavy crowd and that it became impossible to move in either direction.He said people were crushed to death in front of him, but that he was lucky and was taken to the hospital.
In a final ritual Thursday, the Imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque told the throngs of pilgrims gathered inside the colossal structure to unite and avoid dissension and ungodly behavior. Most pilgrims will sacrifice an animal in a symbolic gesture to conclude their participation in the event.
Saudi Arabia's civil defense directorate gave the casualty figures from Thursday's stampede on its Twitter account and posted pictures showing rescue workers attending to people on stretchers, including one who appears to be trying to resuscitate a man.
VOA's Hausa service contributed to this report.