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Hajj's deadliest day since 1997 kills 244 pilgrims

A stampede outside the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca on Sunday left at least 244 Muslim pilgrims dead, the largest loss of life in years during an annual religious gathering where vast crowds often overwhelm efforts to control them.

The stampede occurred on a narrow bridge crowded with white-clad worshipers making their way to hurl stones at pillars where Muslims believe the devil appeared before the prophet Abraham. Those approaching from behind eventually pushed down pilgrims closest to the pillars, causing panic and a stampede so intense that it took police a half-hour to reach the dead and injured, officials said. At least 200 people were treated, some for serious injuries.

"There was more than 400 meters (440 yards) of people pushing in the same direction," said Iyad Madani, the Saudi minister for hajj, the pilgrimage that all Muslims who can afford it are asked to make at least once in a lifetime. Officials estimated 2-million people made the pilgrimage this year.

"All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will," Madani said.

The death toll was the highest since 1997, when 340 pilgrims were killed in a fire in their tent city in Mina, on the road from Mecca, Islam's holiest city, to Mount Arafat. Sunday's tragedy also occurred in Mina, where pilgrims gather on the tiring final day of the pilgrimage to symbolically stone the devil after a night spent in prayer.

Last year 14 pilgrims were fatally trampled during the pilgrimage. In 2001 a stampede claimed 35 lives. In 1998 the death toll was 180. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were crushed in a pedestrian tunnel in Mecca.

"Think of 20 Super Bowls all together," said Khaled Maeena, editor of Arab News, a Saudi newspaper published nationwide. "A life is a life and we cannot afford to have these things happen. But it's 2-million people confined to a very narrow arrow, for quite some time _ three days. It's not a joke."

Madani also said 272 pilgrims had died of natural causes during the hajj. Many participants are elderly, and Muslims believe that anyone who dies while performing the pilgrimage goes directly to heaven.

Saudi officials emphasized that they have become students of crowd control as a result of administering an event unique in the world. Admission to the hajj from abroad is by permit, allowing the Department of General Statistics to produce the exact number of foreign nationals officially participating in this year's pilgrimage: 1,419,706.

Brig. Mansour al-Turki of the Saudi General Security Forces said about 10,000 security officers were on duty in the area.

Support staff is assigned to help the throngs cope with the desert sun, handing out ice water and umbrellas. Saudi Boy Scouts stand by with maps to assist pilgrims who invariably get separated from their groups in a sea of worshipers identically clad in the simple white garments pilgrims are obliged to wear, to erase distinctions between rich and poor.

Officials designate guides and interpreters to steer foreign pilgrims through the rituals of the hajj. And because certain annual bottlenecks _ including the bridge leading to the devil's pillars _ have proved dangerous in the past, foreign pilgrims were assigned specific times to set off, in hopes of staggering the crowds over several hours.

Madani said the huge throngs early Sunday resulted in part from the half-million Saudi pilgrims who swelled the ranks, overwhelming efforts at crowd control. Some of the Saudis, he said, may not have been authorized to participate. Reports said many of the Saudi worshipers carried belongings that became obstacles when the panic erupted around 9 a.m.

Officials said many of the dead were Saudi citizens.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.