MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia blamed unruly pilgrims on Friday for the crush that killed at least 345 people in the haj, but many Muslims said better security could have averted the worst disaster to befall the rite in 16 years.
The pilgrims were crushed on the last day of the haj at the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge in Mena, a narrow valley near the holy city of Mecca, as they jostled to perform a stoning ritual in the early afternoon.
The legitimacy of Saudi Arabia's ruling house rests in the eyes of many Muslims on its ability to host some 2.5 million haj pilgrims from all over the world every year.
"The state has made every effort and done everything it should," the kingdom's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said on state television, accusing pilgrims of being disorderly.
Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, as well as the kingdom's interior minister, also blamed pilgrims who defied the rules and carried their belongings with them and ignored advice to perform the ritual throughout the day.
"It pains us that so many people died, but we must point out that the security forces averted many more disasters from happening and saved many lives," the state news agency SPA quoted Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz as saying.
Saudi Arabia has not announced the nationalities of the dead pilgrims, but India said at least 27 of its citizens were killed in the crush. Indonesia reported two of its pilgrims had died and Pakistan said it knew of six fatalities so far.
"I think there might be at least 30 to 40 Pakistanis among the dead,"said Vakil Ahmad Khan, permanent secretary at Pakistan's Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Senior cleric Sheikh Saud al-Shuraim told thousands of pilgrims gathered in Mecca for Friday prayers that the number of deaths was "not huge" compared to the number of pilgrims.
"But events like this show that pilgrims should know the rules and practices of haj," he added.
Many pilgrims insist on following Prophet Mohammad's example of stoning after noon prayers instead of staggering the ritual throughout the day as some clerics recommend. Saudi clerics who follow the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam have in the past advised stoning after noon.
But some pilgrims said the authorities had failed to impose their own rules on the ritual, which has seen similar deadly stampedes in the past.
In 2004, some 250 pilgrims were crushed to death at Jamarat Bridge. A decade earlier, 270 were killed in a similar stampede. Thursday's death toll was the highest since 1,426 people were killed in a stampede in a tunnel in Mecca in 1990.
"There seemed to be more security forces this year but they were not very organised or had any plan," said 28-year-old Jihad from Egypt.
"Security forces should have concentrated their efforts on removing squatters. This year, they seemed to let them slide by," said Yasser Bakir, 39, also from Egypt.
Witnesses also said the tragedy was caused as the flow of pilgrims entering and leaving the Jamarat bridge clashed, ignoring instructions on huge noticeboards, loudspeakers and pamphlets on how to perform the rites.
"What's the reason for what happened, that's the question that must be answered," wrote columnist Raqiya Shabib in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper.
"For this not to happen again the organisation has got to be rethought at the Jamarat area in particular."
The Interior Ministry said before the five-day haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once a lifetime, that it would stop pilgrims squatting with their belongings by the side of the Jamarat Bridge.
Officials say that around 300,000 Muslims who are already resident in Saudi Arabia slip into the Mecca area to join the some two million pilgrims taking part.
This year's haj had already been marred by the collapse of a Mecca hostel that killed 76 people last week.
(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz in Islamabad)
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