Hajj stampede: Death toll rises sharply with Iran declaring 465 deceased

The death toll in the Saudi hajj disaster rose sharply as Iran announced 465 of its pilgrims died in last week’s stampede and crush, nearly doubling its earlier count and likely further straining relations between the two Mideast rivals.

And while Saudi officials previously said the tragedy killed 769 pilgrims, an Associated Press count based on official figures from countries around the world shows at least 999 people perished near Islam’s holy city of Mecca.

The total figure could be even larger as the AP survey covered only 15 of the more than 180 countries that sent some 2 million pilgrims to the annual pilgrimage, a pillar of Islamic faith. Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Iran all have said the toll may be higher than what the kingdom has presented.

Faisal Alzahrani, the Saudi Health Ministry’s general director of communications, told the AP late last night that his office’s figure of 769 killed and 934 injured in Mina remained accurate. He has said civil defense authorities would announce future totals as Saudi authorities continue to investigate the cause of the disaster.

Among all countries, Shiite power Iran appears for now to have lost the most pilgrims. According to the AP count, nearly 600 people from around the world remain missing in Saudi Arabia after the September 24 disaster.

The Iranian state news agency IRNA published a list last night of the 465 pilgrims it said died at Mina. Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s hajj department, told state television that Iranian officials are trying to return bodies of Iranian pilgrims “as soon as possible.” He said Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed not to bury any of the dead in Saudi Arabia without prior permission by Iran or the families of the deceased.

A state television newscaster said missing Iranian pilgrims who remain unaccounted for are included in this latest toll. Among them was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador to Lebanon believed to be close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s state IRNA news agency reported yesterday the country’s interior minister visited the ambassador’s family to offer his condolences. Roknabadi’s brother, Mortza, said his family still hoped he was alive. The disaster has fed into the bitter regional rivalry between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran, which back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

On Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of “harsh” measures if the kingdom failed to promptly repatriate the bodies of the Islamic Republic’s dead. Saudi authorities have said the disaster in Mina happened as two waves of pilgrims converged on a narrow road, causing hundreds of people to suffocate or be trampled to death. In previous years, the hajj has drawn more than 3 million pilgrims without any major incidents.

But even before this year’s hajj began, disaster struck Mecca as a construction crane crashed into the Grand Mosque on September 11, killing at least 111 people. The accusations of mismanagement of the pilgrimage strike at a key pillar of the Saudi royal family’s prestige. King Salman, who oversaw his first hajj as ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, holds the title of the “custodian of the two holy mosques.”

Iran has led a chorus of international criticism directed at Saudi Arabia’s response to the incident, saying its diplomats were not given access to victims until days after the stampede. That’s a criticism also levied by Indonesia, the Muslim world’s most populous country.

Iranians have staged daily protests near the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and President Hassan Rouhani devoted a significant part of his speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday to blaming Saudi authorities for the disaster and demanding it be “fully investigated.” Saudi hajj disaster toll rises higher with Iran’s 465 dead.