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Saudi diplomat: Hajj fire was an accident

Death toll rises to 343

Latest developments:

April 16, 1997
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT)

MINA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- A Saudi Arabian diplomat said on Wednesday a fire that killed hundreds near the holy city of Mecca was an accident with no political ramifications.

Meantime, 2 million Muslims -- chanting and clad in white robes -- began the climax of this year's ill-fated hajj pilgrimage as authorities tried to identify victims of the wind-spread fire that swept their tent city on Tuesday.

"Investigations indicate that the fire was an accident," Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, said in a statement. "We are faced with a human tragedy which has no political implications."

Diplomats and witnesses said the blaze was caused by gas cylinder explosions, but Saudi officials gave no cause.

Saudi state-run radio said Wednesday the death toll had climbed to 343 -- more than 100 higher than previously reported.


"Investigations indicate that the fire was an accident," Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, said in a statement. "We are faced with a human tragedy which has no political implications."

Diplomats and witnesses said the blaze was caused by gas cylinder explosions, but Saudi officials gave no cause.

The official death toll stands at 217, but witnesses said they saw at least 300 bodies. Some were trampled to death as pilgrims fled the fire.

Aftermath

The fire roared through 70,000 tents at Mina erected by pilgrims performing the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the nearby holy city of Mecca, home of Islam's holiest shrines.

In Mina, the air was thick with the smell of smoke, and the ground was littered with remains from burned-out buses to charred water bottles.

Trucks carted off blackened debris, while workers -- helped by the Saudi army -- frantically erected new tents.

Determining death toll difficult

Diplomats said Saudi authorities were trying to count and identify victims, a difficult task as many bodies were thoroughly burned.

Cleanup

"Hospital staff are not authorized to speak and the Saudi authorities are not sharing new information with the embassies or press," one diplomat said.

More than half of the known victims were believed to have come from India and Pakistan. Saudi newspapers said the fire had also engulfed Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese, Yemeni and Moroccan tents.

Bangladesh's official news agency BSS said it had received a report from the embassy in Saudi Arabia that only one of its citizens had been killed in the fire.

"I am just desperate," said Hashmat Niazi, as he paced outside an emergency center in Islamabad, Pakistan, demanding information about his elderly parents who were in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage.

"I worry that they would not have been able to move fast enough when the stampede began."

Pilgrims reach Mount Arafat

While the search of the charred debris continued, swarms of white-robed pilgrims by midday Wednesday had reached Mount Arafat, pinnacle of an elaborate set of hajj rituals.

Calls of "At thy service O' Lord, at thy service," thundered through the valley as the pilgrims moved in a massive white wave up the mountain, where Islam's prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon shortly before his death in 632.

By ritual, every pilgrim must arrive at Arafat by midday to stand silently in prayer as a group. It is the climax of the hajj, or pilgrimage, which every Muslim who can afford it must perform at least once in a lifetime.

However, because of the fire, some pilgrims gave up on achieving one of the five tenets of Islam this year.

"We will come next year for hajj, because we have lost everything," one Pakistani pilgrim said.

On Thursday, Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) at the end of hajj.

Pilgrims will spend the night at Mozdalifah, between Mina and Mount Arafat, where they will stone three pillars symbolizing the devil.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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