At least 700 crushed to death in Mecca stampede

At least 717 pilgrims were killed on Thursday in a stampede outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi authorities said, the worst disaster to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in 25 years.

At least 805 others were injured in the panic at Mina, a few kilometers east of Mecca.

The stampede was caused by too many people pushing at Mina, where more than 160,000 tents are set up to accommodate millions of visiting pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Two large groups of pilgrims arrived together at a crossroads on their way to performing the Stoning the Devil ritual at Jamarat, Saudi civil defence said.

Street 204, where the stampede occurred, is one of the two main arteries leading through the camp at Mina to Jamarat. In 2006, at least 346 pilgrims died in a stampede at Jamarat.

Both stampedes occurred on Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, considered a particularly dangerous day because thousands of pilgrims try to perform rituals at the same time in the same location, according to The Telegraph.

In recent years, the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding hajj infrastructure and crowd-control technology. Efforts to improve safety at Jamarat have included enlarging the three pillars and constructing a three-decker bridge around them to increase the area and number of entry and exit points for pilgrims to perform the ritual.

But safety remains an issue. On Thursday, more than 200 ambulances and 4,000 rescuers were sent to the scene of the stampede to help the injured.

Pictures posted by the Saudi Civil Defence agency on its Twitter account show rescue workers attending to victims on Thursday:

A video, posted on the website of the Hurriyet Daily News, shows the aftermath of the stampede:

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Two million Muslims from around the globe began the hajj pilgrimage this week.

The journey is said to be one of the five pillars of Islam, the cornerstones of the Muslim faith, and is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. It remembers the experiences of Abraham and the Prophet Muhammad.

Every Muslim must make the journey at least once in his or her lifetime.

The annual pilgrimage has been the scene of many deadly events in the past. In 1990, more than 1,400 people died in a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel that leads out from Mecca to Mina, according to The Guardian.

The most recent large, deadly stampede occurred in 2006, when 326 pilgrims were killed.

The incident follows the collapse of a construction crane at Mecca’s Grande Mosque last week, which killed 107 people and injured 230.

Safety during hajj is a politically sensitive issue for the country’s ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.