Grieving pilgrims try to locate relatives

Hundreds of worried pilgrims crowded around a photo display at a medical center on Friday, scanning anxiously for pictures of loved ones who may have been among the 362 people killed the day before in a deadly stampede. Medical officials at al-Moaysem Medical Center said at least 60 others remained in critical condition after being trampled during a rush to carry out the stoning ritual in a notorious bottleneck area that has been the site of previous tragedies.

The medical center on Friday posted photos of the unidentified dead. Egyptian Osama el-Gindy said he was looking for a relative who was a few meters ahead of him when the stampede began. "I was slightly wounded but managed to pull myself out of the crowd. I haven't seen him since then," el-Gindy said. "I hope he is still alive. But if he is dead, he is a martyr and will go to heaven like all others." Muslims believe that anyone who dies during a pilgrimage is assured a place in heaven.

Thursday's tragedy underlined the difficulty in managing one of the biggest religious events in the world, which this year drew more than 2.5 million pilgrims. The weeklong pilgrimage, required once in a lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim, ends Friday.

In the stoning ritual, all the pilgrims must pass by 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 a desert plain of Mina outside Mecca, has seen deadly incidents in seven of the past 17 years, including a stampede in 1990 that killed 1,426 people and another in February 2004 that killed 244.

Thursday's stampede began when some of the thousands who were rushing to complete the stoning tripped over baggage and caused a large pileup. Many pilgrims carry their personal belongings, such as tents, clothes or bags of food, with them as they move between the various stages of the hajj.

State-run Saudi television Al-Ekhbariyah reported that most of the victims were from South Asia. On Friday, medical officials said about 100 of the victims were Egyptian. The Health Ministry said 289 people were injured. The deaths follow another accident that marred this year's hajj the Jan. 5 collapse of a building being used as a pilgrims' hotel that killed 76 people in Mecca.

Ensuring a smooth pilgrimage is a key concern for Saudi Arabia's royal family, which bolsters its legitimacy by touting its role as the "custodian of the holy cities", Mecca and Medina, where Islam's 7th century prophet Muhammad was born and lived.

Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdel Aziz said Thursday that the state had "spared no effort" to avoid such disasters but, he added, "it cannot stop what God has preordained. It is impossible." "We feel pain and sorrow for them and for their families and we send our condolences," the prince said on Al-Ekhbariya television, reports the AP. N.U.

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