MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia blamed unruly pilgrims on Friday for the crush that killed 362 people during 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 kingdom's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said, accused pilgrims of being disorderly and senior officials said many had defied the rules by carrying their baggage with them and ignoring advice to stagger the rituals through 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.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled al-Mirghalani put the final death toll at 362, up from 345 announced on Thursday. He said 45 remained in hospital but with only slight injuries.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said the bodies identified so far included 44 Indians, 37 Pakistanis and 28 Saudis and the authorities were still trying to determine the nationalities of about half of the dead.
The initial figures included victims from 23 other countries and both Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates said their citizens were among the dead and wounded.
In conditions of severe overcrowding, pilgrims carrying belongings broke through a security cordon, ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said.
"There were bubbles of security men in the crowd but often the mass and force is too much and they effectively disappear," he said, showing pictures taken just before the tragedy.
Turki said many of the dead were carrying no documents and Pakistan's Minister for Religious Affairs Mohammad Ejaz ul Haq told Reuters many bodies had been disfigured, making the task of identifying them even more difficult.
Some survivors said they had trampled upon people before falling on top of the human mass themselves.
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.
However, 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, about 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.
Witnesses said the tragedy was caused as the flow of pilgrims entering and leaving the Jamarat Bridge clashed, ignoring instructions on huge notice boards, 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 five-day haj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it to perform at least once a lifetime.
Officials say about 300,000 Muslims already resident in Saudi Arabia slip into the Mecca area to join 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 Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad)
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