Who was responsible for the death of 769 Muslim pilgrims in Mina, Saudi Arabia, who died during a stampede last week? Iran says Saudi Arabia’s rulers are personally responsible, but eyewitnesses accounts and a statement by an Iranian official tell a different story…..
Iran accused Saudi Arabia of negligence during the Hajj – the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – and vows to take legal action against the Kingdom after 136 Iranians were killed during a stampede in Mina. Another 85 Iranians were injured, and 344 remain missing four days after the disaster.
The Saudi Health Ministry announced on Saturday that the death toll had risen to 769, up from 717 on Thursday; 934 people were injured when a crowd of elderly people and children tried to escape an overcrowded street.
Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, used his speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations to demand an international investigation into the disaster. Rouhani said that the “heart-rending” disaster demanded an investigation into “the causes of this incident and other similar incidents in this year’s hajj.”
On Friday, Rouhani suggested that the tragedy in Mina could be a result of the transfer of experienced Saudi security personnel to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels.
Earlier, Iran’s State Prosecutor, Ebrahim Raisi, told Iranian State Television that “Under international law, this incident is absolutely subject to prosecution. The Al-Saud must be responsive,” making a reference to the House of Saud, the ruling monarchy in the country. Raisi later demanded a criminal investigation into the role of the Saudi regime in the disaster.
Since the deadly stampede occurred, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been on the rise. Iran already summoned the Saudi consul in Tehran three times to protest the handling of the Hajj, and Ayatollah Khamenei demanded an apology from Saudi Arabia.
Iran contests the Saudi custody of the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina and its right to organize the yearly Hajj that brought over two million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia this year. The two archrivals also are embroiled in several regional conflicts such as the Syrian war, where Saudi Arabia supports Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and Iran the Assad regime.
Hundreds of angry protesters gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Friday, chanting “Death to the Saudi dynasty.”
The Iranians also spread accusations implicating the direct involvement of the House of Saud in the stampede. Several regime-controlled media reported that the disaster was the result of the blocking of two of the main roads in Mina to allow the passage of a convoy of the Saudi government.
The Iranian media cited eyewitnesses who said that the convoy of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud had been seen speeding on a road that crossed Route 204, where the pilgrims were walking towards the “Stoning of the Devil” ritual in Mina.
“Saudi Arabia has not responded to the Iranian accusations regarding the convoy. Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press that a VIP convoy traveling through Mina on Thursday, which included foreign dignitaries, had nothing to do with the incident and was in a different part of town. He said VIPs use their own roads in Mina,” AP reported.
A Saudi eyewitness, who wished to remain anonymous, told Western Journalism on Thursday that the very high temperatures in Mina on Thursday had contributed significantly to the high death toll of the stampede. Temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius on Thursday.
Other eyewitnesses told a news site in Saudi Arabia that a large group of Iranians in the crowd had been responsible for the stampede.
Arab News, which first reported on the issue, cited the news site Sabq, which published eyewitness accounts that said the stampede happened after a large group of Iranians “passed through Souq Al-Arab Street and refused to return, ignoring guidelines.”
Sabq quoted one of the Saudi officials in charge of organizing the event as saying that “the Iranian pilgrims did not listen to the guidelines, ignored it and confronted us. They were raising slogans before the incident.”
Sabq also reported that the Iranians had behaved provocatively during the Hajj and were promoting the Iranian Islamic Revolution among other pilgrims, thereby transforming the Hajj into a political platform. The Iranians were said to have confronted other pilgrims and Saudi security forces prior to the stampede.
Arab News suggested that Yemeni Houthi leader Mohammad Al-Maqaleh could have something to do with the stampede. He wrote on his Facebook page that this year “during Haj there would be incidents which would not have examples in the history. Knock O men of Allah before the season so that you are crowned the day of staying in the mountain of Arafat,” Arab News reported.
On Sunday, the London-based Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat reported that an official from Iran’s Hajj mission had confirmed the Saudi version of the cause of the disaster.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, said the accident occurred after a group of around 300 Iranian pilgrims failed to follow orders requiring them to wait for clearance to leave Jamarat—the site where pilgrims perform the ‘stoning the devil’ ritual.
Instead, the group went back to their mission’s headquarters as other groups were on their way to the site as scheduled, according to the official.
‘The group stopped for a while, causing the coming pilgrims to take a route no more than 20 meters wide,’ he said, adding that such behavior often leads to tragic consequences in crowded areas.
The Iranian pilgrims were scheduled to leave Jamarat hours after the accident took place, the official said.
The official’s comments were confirmed by other eyewitnesses who told Asharq al-Awsat that the stampede occurred after the group of Iranians “failed to follow orders from security.”