Mina, Saudi Arabia Thousands of Muslims surging to complete a stoning ritual before sunset stampeded Thursday after some pilgrims tripped over dropped luggage, causing a pileup that killed at least 345 people in the second tragedy to hit this year's hajj.
Saudi authorities have sought for years to ease the flow of increasingly mammoth crowds during the annual Islamic pilgrimage, but the deaths on the final day of the stoning of the devil ritual underlined the difficulty in managing one of the world's biggest religious events, which this year drew more than 2.5 million followers.
The stampede came a week after another hajj disaster - the Jan. 5 collapse of a building being used as a pilgrims' hotel that killed 76 people in Mecca.
In the stoning ritual, all the pilgrims must pass a series of three "pillars" called al-Jamarat, which represent the devil and which the faithful pelt with stones to purge themselves of sin.
The site in the desert of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca is a notorious bottleneck in the weeklong pilgrimage and has seen deadly incidents in seven of the past 17 years, including a stampede in 1990 that killed 1,426 people and one in 2004 that killed 244.
"I heard screaming and ... saw people jumping over each other," said Suad Abu Hamada, an Egyptian pilgrim. "Police starting pulling out bodies. The bodies were piled up. I couldn't count them, they were too many."
Bodies covered in white sheets lined the pavement near the ramp where the stampede occurred, and emergency workers rushed the injured away on stretchers. Police cleared part of the site, but thousands of pilgrims continued the stoning ritual.
The Interior Ministry put the death toll at 345, and the Health Ministry said 289 people were injured. State-run Al-Ekhbariyah television said most of the victims were from South Asia.
After the 2004 stampede, Saudi officials widened ramps leading to a platform the width of an eight-lane highway where the three pillars are located and created more emergency exits to accommodate the crowds.
Each of the small, round pillars also were replaced with 85-foot-long walls to allow more people to stone them at once without jostling each other. The walls were extended through the bottom of the platform so more pilgrims can carry out the stoning from below.
Thursday's stampede occurred below the platform, near one of the four big ramps. In theory, the crowds are supposed to enter the platform using two of the ramps and exit down the other two, but pilgrims often ignore the rules.
Thousands of pilgrims were rushing to complete the last of the three days of the stoning ritual before sunset when some of them began to trip over dropped baggage, causing a crush, said Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry.