TEHRAN, Iran, Sept 30, (Agencies): Iran’s top leader on Wednesday warned Saudi Arabia of “harsh” measures if the kingdom fails to promptly repatriate the bodies of more than 200 Iranian pilgrims killed in last week’s Hajj stampede. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s warning came as Iran summoned Riyadh’s envoy for the fourth time since last Thursday’s deadly crush of pilgrims to protest what it called the kingdom’s “mishandling” of the incident. Saudi authorities say 769 pilgrims died in the stampede near Makkah in the worst disaster to strike the annual pilgrimage in a quarter-century. Iran appears to have lost the largest number of pilgrims, with 239 dead. Tehran says 241 Iranian pilgrims remain unaccounted for, and Iran’s state media have accused Saudi Arabia of a cover-up, saying the total death toll exceeds 4,700. It has offered no evidence to corroborate the claim.
The disaster has fed into the bitter regional rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen. 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. Pilgrims reported feeling the hands of their relatives slip away into the crowd on Thursday morning when a crush at the Mina camp in Makkah killed at least 769 in the deadliest Hajj disaster in a generation. Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on making the world’s biggest gathering of people safe.
For nine years, there had been no major disasters at the Hajj, a much lauded success after a period from 1990-2006 when crowd crushes and fires that killed hundreds of people took place every 2-3 years. But Thursday morning’s crush — as millions of people tried to reach three walls to pelt them with stones in a ritual intended to drive out Satan — proved that those preparations were inadequate for the world’s greatest crowd control challenge. “There was no way out. You saw parents leaving their children and the elderly to survive,” said a Nigerian survivor, Dahiru Shittu Ibrahim, 37. Saudi Arabia’s management of the annual pilgrimage has been a divisive issue in parts of the Muslim world for decades as the Hajj has grown in scale and danger. Khamenei called on Muslim countries to investigate the deadly crush on the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia last Thursday that killed 769 people including at least 239 Iranians. “Representatives from Iran and the Islamic world should go to Saudi Arabia and investigate the cause of the Hajj incident,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.