At least 244 people were trampled to death and hundreds more hurt Sunday under the crush of worshippers in one of the deadliest disasters during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
The stampede occurred during the stoning of the devil, an emotional and notoriously perilous hajj ritual. Pilgrims frantically throw rocks, shout insults or hurl their shoes at three stone pillars - acts that are supposed to demonstrate their deep disdain for Satan.
Safety measures were in place at the site - one where fatal stampedes have been frequent - but "caution isn't stronger than fate," said Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani. "All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will."
The stampede broke out on one of two ramps leading to the 50-foot stone pillars. Tens of thousands of people were on the uppermost ramp, which is about the width of a five-lane highway.
Authorities said a few pilgrims fell, causing panic as pressure built up in the crowd behind.
Brig. Mansour al-Turki of the Saudi General Security Forces said about 10,000 general security officers were on duty in the area at the time.
Their intervention "resulted in containing the pushing toward the pillar to prevent more pilgrims from falling," an unidentified Saudi Interior Ministry official said, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.
The same area was the scene of similar deadly incidents in 1998, 2001 and last year.
Sunday's tragedy marked the worst disaster at the annual hajj since 1997, when 340 pilgrims died in a fire at their tent city in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca.
Most of the dead Sunday were pilgrims from inside the Saudi kingdom who may not have been authorized to participate, Madani said. It was unclear how many foreign pilgrims died, but Egypt's Middle East News Agency reported that 13 Egyptians were among the dead.
Madani also said 272 pilgrims had died of natural causes during the hajj. Many participants are elderly, and Muslims believe that if a person dies while performing the pilgrimage they will go directly to heaven.
About 2 million Muslims are participating in this year's pilgrimage. To control the crowd, Saudi authorities set quotas for pilgrims from each country, and also require its citizens and residents to register upon arrival.
Many resident foreigners, especially those from the Indian subcontinent, cannot afford to pay the cost of an authorized pilgrimage, around $530, and perform the pilgrimage independently, despite recent laws requiring citizens and residents to join registered pilgrimage campaigns.
The chaos came after a sleepless night of prayer at the climax of the hajj, when pilgrims from around the world listened to Saudi Arabia's top cleric at the Namira Mosque.
On Sunday morning, they prayed at dawn then gathered pebbles to throw at the pillars. Each participant throws seven times, chanting "bismillah" ("in the name of God") and "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great").
Calling America "the greatest Satan," Egyptian pilgrim Youssef Omar threw pebbles at one pillar on which someone had scrawled "USA."
After the 1998 hajj, when about 180 pilgrims were trampled to death, religious authorities issued an edict extending the amount of time in which pilgrims could complete the ritual, hoping to spread out the crowd.
A giant ramp leading to the pillars fills with pilgrims waiting to throw their pebbles, and Saudi authorities instruct pilgrims in several languages when and where to pass.
Still, 14 pilgrims were trampled to death during the same ritual last year and 35 died in a 2001 stampede.
The stoning ritual also marked the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, celebrated at the hajj and around the Muslim world with the slaughtering of a camel, cow or sheep. Meat is eaten and distributed to the poor.