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Wednesday, September 7, 2016, 22:22

Haj disaster: Iran seeks punishment for Saudi Arabia

By Associated Press
Haj disaster: Iran seeks punishment for Saudi Arabia
In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a weekly cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Sept 7, 2016. (Photo/AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's president on Wednesday called on the Muslim world to "punish" Saudi Arabia following last year's hajj crush and stampede that killed over 2,400 people — sharp criticism as multitudes poured into the kingdom for this year's pilgrimage.

Hassan Rouhani's comments are the latest salvo in a growing dispute between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are now arriving in the kingdom to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage, which starts later this week.

Iranian pilgrims are not taking part in this year's hajj, a ritual required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their life.

Iran's state-run IRNA news agency on Wednesday quoted Rouhani lambasting Saudi Arabia's response to the 2015 stampede in Mina by saying pilgrims lost their lives because Saudi authorities acted just as "bystanders rather than rescuing" those caught in the disaster.

He said countries should "punish the government of Saudi Arabia in order to have a real hajj."

"The government of Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for this incident," Rouhani told a weekly Cabinet meeting. "Unfortunately, this government has even refrained from a verbal apology to Muslims and Muslim countries."

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile met with families of victims and survivors of the Mina stampede and reiterated his demand that Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family properly investigate the disaster, IRNA reported.

"If they are claiming that they are not guilty in the incident, they should let an Islamic-international fact-finding delegation review and probe the case closely," Khamenei said, adding that Saudi Arabia "should not shut people's mouth with money."

On social media, Khamenei's accounts used the hashtag #alSaudHijacksHajj to criticize the kingdom, while reiterating his demand that someone other than the Saudis be in charge of administering the hajj.

The Sept 24, 2015, stampede and crush of pilgrims killed at least 2,426 people, according to an Associated Press count based on state media reports and officials' comments from 36 of the over 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj.

The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since Sept 26. The kingdom has never addressed the discrepancy, nor has it released any results of an investigation they promised to conduct over the disaster.

Iran had the highest death toll of any country, with 464 Iranian pilgrims killed.

In January, tensions between longtime rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia soared after the kingdom executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric. Angry demonstrators later attacked two Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties to the Islamic Republic. The two countries also support opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

On Monday, Khamenei raised the stakes in the dispute over hajj by saying Saudi officials had "murdered" hajj pilgrims who were injured in the stampede. Saudi's grand mufti countered by claiming that Iranians are "not Muslims."

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