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Four Chinese pilgrims among 345 dead in Hajj stampede
Updated: 2006-01-13 06:39

The hajj is a complex balance of safety with Islam's requirements that every able-bodied Muslim should perform the pilgrimage at least once. Saudi Arabia sets a quota of participants, allowing every nation to send 1,000 pilgrims for every 1 million in population.

The three-day stoning ritual in particular is a nightmarish problem in crowd dynamics.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims must move up the ramps onto the platform, maneuver from pillar to pillar and hit each with seven stones, then exit.

Many of the pilgrims are in a rush because of the time constraints on the ritual and their anxiety about past stampedes.

Traditionally, stoning was carried out from midday to sunset.

Shiite Muslim clerics have issued edicts allowing pilgrims to do the stoning in the morning, and some Sunni clerics have followed suit in an attempt to space out the crowds. But some clerics following Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam urge the faithful to stick to the midday start.

About 60,000 Saudi police and soldiers patrolled the Mina plain once the stoning ritual began Tuesday to direct pilgrims. Helicopters flew overhead, and authorities monitored the pilgrims from a control room through closed-circuit TV.

But some people complained that police did little to help.

"They look indifferent. They don't carry out their duties seriously," Iftikhar Hussein, an Iraqi pilgrim, said. "This looks like a garage rather than a holy site."

"If hajj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim, it should be a duty for the government" to ensure it is safe, she added.

Signs giving directions are few, and pilgrims often ignore regulations. Peddlers selling food and souvenirs also impede the pilgrims.

Saudi Arabia has announced plans for further changes to the site in coming years that it says will allow 500,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the stoning.

Among the changes, the platform is to be expanded to four levels, with 12 entrances and 12 exits. Also, there are plans to bus pilgrims to al-Jamarat from a nearby tent city in the desert rather than allow them to make their own way to the site.

Thursday evening, the highway from Mina to Mecca was packed with buses, trucks and cars carrying pilgrims to the holy city for Friday's final rite of the hajj: the "farewell tawwaf" — a walk around the Kaaba, the black stone cube that all Muslims face when they perform daily prayers.

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