Mina, Saudi Arabia — The convergence of millions of pilgrims has once again brought tragedy, with the deaths Monday of 35 Muslims trampled in a crush of bodies during the stoning the devil ritual at the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Hours later, the enormous crowd was calm and many of the estimated 2 million pilgrims in the sprawling, overcrowded tent city were unaware of it.
A witness said the incident started early in the morning and was brought under control about three hours later. The witness, an Egyptian journalist who was performing the pilgrimage and spoke on condition of anonymity, saw a few people at a time suffocate or fall and be trampled to death.
Most of the victims died of suffocation, said Saad bin Abdallah al-Tuwegry, a Saudi civil defense chief.
"A stampede resulted when the older people in the crowd couldn't move as fast as others," al-Tuwegry told the official Saudi Press Agency. "Security forces intervened promptly and prevented the accident from getting worse. We have constantly urged the pilgrims to follow the guidelines for safety that we put forth in order to avoid such disasters."
Security and safety have been major concerns at the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that according to Islam must be performed once in a lifetime by every Muslim who is able to do so. Hundreds of hajj pilgrims have been killed in stampedes in recent years, in several cases at the stoning the devil ritual. In addition, scores die every year of natural causes, mainly the elderly.
In Monday's tragedy, the news agency said 23 women and 12 men were killed and an unknown number of people were injured.
The Egyptian journalist told the AP that most of the victims appeared to be of Asian origin. The mix of peoples and languages adds to the huge crowd control challenge at the hajj. Pilgrims usually move in national groups, with the leaders sometimes carrying small flags for identification.
In the last hajj tragedy, in 1998, a stampede at the stoning the devil ritual killed 180 people. A 1997 fire in Mina, where the stoning takes place, tore through the tent city, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500. In 1994, a stampede killed 270 pilgrims. The most deadly hajj-related tragedy was a 1990 stampede in which 1,426 pilgrims were killed.
Pilgrims come to Mina from the holy city of Mecca to cast pebbles the size of chickpeas at three columns of stone that symbolize the devil as they chant, "In the name of God, God is great."
The pillars symbolizing the devil are at the center of giant ramps built to accommodate the huge crowds of pilgrims who must complete the ritual by dusk. Muslim tradition says it was here that the devil tried to tempt the Prophet Abraham to disobey God by refusing to sacrifice his son.