Saudi Arabia, under growing pressure to account for a crush that killed more than 700 people at the Hajj pilgrimage, on Friday suggested pilgrims failing to follow crowd control rules bore some blame for the worst disaster at the event for 25 years.
The kingdom`s regional rival Iran expressed indignation at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world`s largest annual gathering of people, and politicians in Tehran suggested Riyadh was incapable of managing the event.
In a statement posted on his ministry`s website, Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll of dead and wounded calculated. At least 863 pilgrims were injured.
“The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place today in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced as has happened in other incidents,” the statement said.
Falih said the injured were being transferred to hospitals in Mecca and if necessary to other parts of the country.
Falih’s comments were likely to be seen by the kingdom’s critics as an attempt to deflect responsibility for the incident: Safety during Hajj is politically sensitive for the kingdom`s ruling Al Saud dynasty, since the ruling family presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.
With photographs of piles of the dead circulating on social media and pilgrims frantically searching for missing compatriots, the effort to uncover the facts and assign blame was likely to grow more acute and possibly more political.
Saudi King Salman ordered a review of Hajj plans after the disaster, in which two big groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few km (miles) east of Mecca, on their way to performing the “stoning of the devil” ritual at Jamarat.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, echoed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in blaming Saudi Arabia for the incident.
“I ask the Saudi Arabian government to take the responsibility of this catastrophe and fulfil its legal and Islamic duties in this regard,” Rouhani said in a statement published on the state news agency IRNA.
In Tehran, protesters held a demonstration after Friday noon prayers. Iranian state television said they were showing their anger at “Saudi incapability and incompetence to run the haj”.
Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff was also quoted by Fars news agency as saying “the incompetence of Saudi Arabian government in this incident in obvious.”