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Pilgrims march to Mount Arafat, death toll in fire climbs to 343

April 16, 1997

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Chanting and clad in white robes, 2 million pilgrims marched up Mount Arafat today, leaving behind the traces of a fire that roared through a tent city and killed 343 people.

Calls of ``At thy service O’ Lord, at thy service,″ thundered through the valley as the pilgrims moved in a 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.

The stand on Mount Arafat is a symbolic precursor of doomsday, when Muslims believe every human will rise from the grave and stand before God in white burial shrouds to be judged.

On Tuesday, a fire tore through the overcrowded encampment of canvas tents on the plain of Mina, where the pilgrims rest before ascending Arafat.

Ignited by exploding canisters of cooking gas and fanned by high winds, the blaze destroyed 70,000 tents and forced hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to spend the night without shelter on the plain outside Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

The official death toll from the fire jumped today to 343 from 217, Saudi television reported. More than 1,290 pilgrims were injured.

Muslims today surrounded officials at the Bombay offices of the Central Hajj Committee, which arranges pilgrimages to the Saudi holy cities for most Indians. Their pleas for information were answered only by a brief fax posted on office walls from Afzal Amanullah, an Indian diplomat in Saudi Arabia.

``There appear to be some Indian victims. ... The Indian deaths are in excess of 100,″ Amanullah wrote. ``It is impossible to get any details at present.″

Most of the other victims were believed to be Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, witnesses told The Associated Press. Some were trampled to death as pilgrims fled the fire.

``Every pilgrim is dressed in identical white robes, so it’s been very hard to distinguish nationalities,″ Ahmad Lehri, director of hajj affairs at the Pakistani consulate in Jiddah, explained by phone from Mina.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million pilgrims had arrived in the kingdom for the hajj, joining nearly an equal number of Saudi worshipers.

In Mecca, worshipers scurried to finish their rituals today and headed for Arafat before the midday deadline.

Burly security guards in long white robes pushed back worshipers lunging to touch the Kaaba, a cubic stone structure that stands inside the massive Grant Mosque. Muslims believe the Kaaba, which is covered by a gold-embroidered black cloth, was built by Abraham as a house of God.

As thousands made their seven counter-clockwise rounds around the Kaaba, Qasim Basim Naqib, a 27-year-old student from Lebanon, clung to the black cloth with tears in his eyes.

``Forgive me O’ Lord, forgive me for my sins. I surrender to thee and hope for mercy,″ he muttered.

Saudi Civil Defense guards, meanwhile, worked through the night to erect tents for the thousands of pilgrims stranded by fire. The pilgrims will return to Mina on Thursday, and stay there for several days to carry out symbolic ``stoning of the devil″ rituals.

Stunned pilgrims wandered the plain today amid the smoldering remains of tents, looking for relatives or friends who may have died. A cloud of smoke hung over the encampment.

King Fahd, the Saudi monarch, offered his condolences to the families of those killed in the fire. ``I ask that God gives them patience to cope,″ he said. President Clinton also sent his condolences.

The hajj has been the scene of several recent tragedies, including the deaths of 1,400 people in a 1990 stampede.

Two years ago, a fire started by a gas stove in Mina destroyed scores of tents, but no casualties were reported.

In 1994, 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were killed in a stampede as worshipers surged toward a cavern for the ritual ``stoning the devil″ re-enactment.

In 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, were killed and 649 wounded in Mecca when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranians staging anti-U.S. demonstrations.

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