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'Saudi state did not fail' after hundreds dead during hajj: official

22 June 2024, MVT 20:27
Muslim worshippers perform prayers around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca. -- Photo: Bandar Al- Dandani/ AFP
22 June 2024, MVT 20:27

A senior Saudi official defended the Gulf kingdom's management of the hajj pilgrimage on Friday after various countries reported more than 1,100 deaths, many attributed to high heat.

"The state did not fail, but there was a misjudgement on the part of people who did not appreciate the risks," the official told AFP in the government's first comments on the deaths.

An AFP tally on Friday, compiling official statements and reports from diplomats involved in the response, put the toll at 1,119, more than half of them from Egypt.

The Saudi official said officials had confirmed 577 deaths for the two busiest days of hajj: Saturday, when pilgrims gathered for hours of prayers in the blazing sun on Mount Arafat, and Sunday, when they participated in the "stoning of the devil" ritual in Mina.

"This happened amid difficult weather conditions and a very harsh temperature," the official said, while acknowledging that the 577 figure was partial and did not cover all of hajj, which formally ended on Wednesday.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims with the means must complete it at least once before they die.

Saudi officials had earlier said 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, a similar total to last year, and that 1.6 million came from abroad.

Hajj permits are allocated to countries on a quota system and distributed to individuals via a lottery.

Even for those who can obtain them, the steep costs make the irregular route -- which costs thousands of dollars less -- more attractive.

"We can estimate the number of the unregistered pilgrims at around 400,000," the Saudi official said Friday.

"Almost most of them from one nationality," the official added, an apparent reference to Egypt.

Arab diplomats told AFP earlier this week that Egypt accounted for 658 deaths, 630 of them unregistered pilgrims.

© Agence France-Presse

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