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More than 1,300 Hajj pilgrims have died this year amid scorching heat, Saudi Arabia says

More than 1,300 pilgrims died amid scorching heat during this year's Hajj pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia's health minister said Sunday.

83% of deaths among unauthorized pilgrims who walked long distances, minister says

A person wearing a head scarf pours water from a plastic bottle onto their face.

Some 1,300 people died during this year's Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia as the faithful faced extreme high temperatures at Islamic holy sites in the desert kingdom, Saudi authorities announced Sunday.

Saudi Health Minister Fahd bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel said that 83 per cent of the 1,301 fatalities were unauthorized pilgrims who walked long distances in soaring temperatures to perform the Hajj rituals in and around the holy city of Mecca.

Speaking to state-owned television, the minister said 95 pilgrims were being treated in hospitals, some of whom were airlifted for treatment in the capital, Riyadh. He said the identification process was delayed because there were no identification documents with many of the dead pilgrims.

The fatalities included more than 660 Egyptians. All but 31 of them were unauthorized pilgrims, according to two officials in Cairo. Egypt has revoked the licences of 16 travel agencies that helped unauthorized pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia, authorities said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists, said most of the dead were reported at the Emergency Complex in Mecca's Al-Muaisem neighbourhood. Egypt sent more than 50,000 authorized pilgrims to Saudi Arabia this year.

Saudi authorities cracked down on unauthorized pilgrims, expelling tens of thousands of people. But many, mostly Egyptians, managed to reach holy sites in and around Mecca, some on foot. Unlike authorized pilgrims, they had no hotels to return to to escape the scorching heat.

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In a statement Saturday, Egypt's government said the 16 travel agencies failed to provide adequate services for pilgrims. It said these agencies illegally facilitated the travel of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia using visas that don't allow holders to travel to Mecca.

The government also said officials from the companies have been referred to the public prosecutor for investigation.

According to the state-owned Al-Ahram daily, some travel agencies and Hajj trip operators sold Saudi tourist visas to Egyptian Hajj hopefuls, violating Saudi regulations that require exclusive visas for pilgrims. Those agencies left pilgrims in limbo in Mecca and the holy sites in scorching heat, the newspaper said.

The fatalities also included 165 pilgrims from Indonesia, 98 from India and dozens more from Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Malaysia, according to an Associated Press tally. Two U.S. citizens were also reported dead.

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The AP could not independently confirm the causes of death, but some countries such as Jordan and Tunisia blamed the soaring heat. AP journalists saw pilgrims fainting from the scorching heat, especially on the second and third days of the Hajj. Some vomited and collapsed.

Historically, deaths are not uncommon at the Hajj, which at times has seen over two million people travel to Saudi Arabia for a five-day pilgrimage. The pilgrimage's history has also seen deadly stampedes and epidemics.

But this year's tally was unusually high, suggesting exceptional circumstances.

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In 2015, a stampede in Mina killed over 2,400 pilgrims, the deadliest incident ever to strike the pilgrimage, according to an AP count. Saudi Arabia has never acknowledged the full toll of the stampede. A separate crane collapse at Mecca's Grand Mosque earlier the same year killed 111.

The second-deadliest incident at the Hajj was a 1990 stampede that killed 1,426 people.

During this year's Hajj period, daily high temperatures ranged between 46 C and 49 C in Mecca and sacred sites in and around the city, according to Saudi Arabia's National Center for Meteorology. Some people fainted while trying to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil.

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The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is one of the world's largest religious gatherings. More than 1.83 million Muslims performed the Hajj this year, including more than 1.6 million from 22 countries, and about 222,000 Saudi citizens and residents, according to the Saudi Hajj authorities.

Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on crowd control and safety measures for those attending the annual five-day pilgrimage, but the sheer number of participants makes it difficult to ensure their safety.

Climate change could make the risk even greater. A 2019 study by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that even if the world succeeds in mitigating the worst effects of climate change, the Hajj would be held in temperatures exceeding an "extreme danger threshold" from 2047 to 2052, and from 2079 to 2086.

Islam follows a lunar calendar, so the Hajj comes around 11 days earlier each year. By 2029, the Hajj will occur in April, and for several years after that it will fall in the winter, when temperatures are milder.

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