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Minister says 1,426 Moslems killed in stampede

CAIRO, Egypt -- Saudi Arabia's interior minister said Tuesday a total of 1,426 Moslems on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca were crushed to death when thousands crowded into a pedestrian tunnel near the Saudi Arabian city.

In statement broadcast by Riyadh Radio and monitored in Cairo, Prince Nayef Ibn Abdul Azziz said 5,000 pilgrims collided inside the Muaisem tunnel that leads to Mount Arafat near Mecca.

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The tragedy was triggered Monday afternoon when seven pilgrims on a packed bridge near one end of the tunnel lost their footing and fell. The accident caused a panic as some pilgrims retreated into the air-conditioned tunnel and collided with waves of others pushing their way through the other end.

'As a result of this painful situation, 1,426 pilgrims were killed, according to the Health Ministry reports, and a number of other pilgrims fainted but were treated in time,' Nayef said.

Nayef said Saudi Arabia, which reveres its role as guardian of Islam's holiest city, deeply regrets the tragedy and he expressed condolences to the families.

Doctors speaking on the condition of anonymity said many of the dead were Egyptians and Pakistanis making the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Indonesia and Malaysia said they also lost citizens in the tragedy, which came at the end of the Feast of Sacrifice, marking when the Prophet Abraham offered his son Ishmael for sacrifice to God.

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Millions of faithful make the Hajj to Mecca every year in a trip every Moslem is expected to make at least once in his or her lifetime. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and Moslems throughout the world pray facing in the direction of the Saudi city.

Pilgrims must pass through the Moassim tunnel on their way to Mount Arafat, about 8 miles from Mecca, where Mohammed, the founder of Islam, is said to have delivered his last sermon 14 centuries ago. The tunnel runs under the highway to Mecca known as the Mecca High Road.

An unidentifed Saudi official was quoted by Riyadh radio as saying the tunnel is 600 yards long and 10 yards wide.

The official said many pilgrims were moving toward the entrance of the tunnel as they headed back to a tent city on the other side. In the crush, seven of the Moslems fell from an elevated bridge leading to the tunnel, triggering the panic.

Waves of pilgrims from either end collided toward the middle and hundreds were trampled in the melee, the official said.

The area was sealed off and ambulances rushed to the scene, he said.

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Saudi television showed hundreds of white-robed victims piled on top of each other on the floor of the tunnel.

Riyadh radio quoted Maj. Gen. Abdul Kader Kamal, the Saudi official in charge of traffic in the area, as saying that the pilgrims did not adhere to the safety regulations.

Saudi King Fahd, in a statement carried by Riyadh radio, expressed deep regret over the tragedy but said the deaths might have been prevented if pilgrims had followed regulations and instructions from authorities.

Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs Munawir Sjadzali said at least 72 Indonesian pilgrims, who were among a record 82,000 Indonesians making the pilgrimage this year, were killed in the stampede.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, officials said eight Malaysians were also among the dead.

In another incident reported Tuesday, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said a fire on Monday destroyed about 20,000 tents of Indian Hajj pilgrims in Mecca, but there were no casualties.

The spokesman said the Indians were visiting Mount Arafat at the time of the blaze, which apparently was caused either by a leaking gas stove or an overturned kerosene cooking stove. Saudi authorities extinguished the blaze and pitched new tents for the pilgrims.

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In 1987 more than 400 pilgrims, most of them Iranians, were killed in clashes with Saudi security forces when they tried to demonstrate. Last year a Pakistani was killed and 16 other pilgrims were wounded in bombings. An undetermined number of Kuwaiti nationals were executed for involvement in the explosions.

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