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Thu 26 Nov 2009 07:17 AM

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Saudi floods kill at least 77 as hajj begins

UPDATE 2: Another 900 rescued from rising waters caused by heaviest rain in years.

Saudi floods kill at least 77 as hajj begins
FLOOD TRAGEDY: At least 77 people were killed in floods in Saudi Arabia on the first day of the hajj. (Getty Images)

At least 77 people have died in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah following the heaviest rainfall in years, a rescue services spokesman said on Thursday.

Some were drowned or were killed by collapsing bridges and in car crashes, while the rescue services spokesman said another 900 people had to be rescued after being stranded by the floodwaters caused by rainfall of up to 3 inches (76 mm).

The death toll is up from 48 reported earlier on Thursday and up from 13 reported on Wednesday, after heavy rains and floods hit the city on the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Government official Jassem al-Yaqout told Reuters two bridges on the motorway to Makkah collapsed. A power outage hit parts of Makkah, the state news agency SPA said.

About 1.6 million pilgrims have come from abroad for the hajj, the world's largest regular religious gathering and a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once if possible.

Pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia are set to raise the total above 2.5 million, posing logistical and health challenges.

In central Makkah, pilgrims with umbrellas usually used to protect against the sun walked the ritual path seven times around the Kaaba, the ancient cube-shaped shrine which Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

Some worried they would be unable to spend the night in a tent camp in a valley in Mina as they follow the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.

"We are staying in tents for now. Heavy rain turned red-carpeted corridors into streams of water with empty cans of soft drinks floating," said Zohra Nasef, from Morocco and on her second hajj.

"Some pilgrims could not find enough space in tents so we deployed additional ones to shelter them," said Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki.

Authorities have improved facilities to ease the flow of pilgrims, particularly around the area where they throw stones at pillars symbolising the rejection of the devil's temptation. In 2006, 362 people were crushed to death there, the worst hajj tragedy in 16 years.

Officials are also trying to prevent a spread of the H1N1 virus during the crowded ritual. At least four pilgrims have died of swine flu since the beginning of the hajj season.

The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, has urged Muslims over 65 and under 12 as well as people with chronic diseases and pregnant women not to perform the ritual this year.

Several countries have put restrictions on their pilgrims and Tunisia has banned citizens from going altogether.

This year, the mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom is battling Shi'ite Yemeni rebels after they raided its territory, an issue that raises fears of possible protests by fellow Shi'ite Muslims during the rituals. Saudi Arabia bans public protests, especially during haj.

Riyadh earlier this month warned against any attempt to politicise the pilgrimage. Some 100,000 security staff are on duty in Makkah in western Saudi Arabia.

In 1987, a rally by pilgrims against Israel and the United States led to clashes with Saudi security forces in which 402 people, mostly Iranians, died.

Saudi Arabia, a US ally which sees itself as Sunni Islam's guardian, has often been at odds with Shi'ite Iran, mainly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Saudi warning followed remarks by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to departing Shi'ite pilgrims that they could not ignore conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan. (Reuters)

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