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Stampede At Hajj Pilgrimage Near Mecca Kills Hundreds

Saudi police and national guard are deployed to the area of a stampede in the Mina valley near the Saudi holy city of Mecca on Thursday. Officials say hundreds of people were killed.

The annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was struck by tragedy Thursday, as a stampede near the holy city killed at least 717 people and left more than 860 injured, according to Saudi officials.

The death toll and the number of injured have risen as authorities get reports from the site; initial reports stated that more than 300 people had died. We're updating this post as new information arrives.

The stampede occurred on a street in Mina, a large valley where thousands of pilgrims camp overnight on their way to Mecca. It's the deadliest incident at the hajj in at least 25 years, according to Gulf News.

A team of more than 4,000 soldiers and emergency personnel are attending to the victims, Saudia Arabia's civil defense directorate says.

From Beirut, NPR's Alison Meuse reports:

"The victims were performing one of the holiest rites in Islam. Every year, Muslims from all over the world converge on the holy city of Mecca in an ancient pilgrimage.

"Last year, the hajj drew more than 2 million people. Because of the high volume of worshipers, stampedes are an almost yearly occurrence.

"Saudi Arabia has been working to expand the ancient route. But that's also come with dangers. Two weeks ago, around 100 worshipers died when a crane crashed in the Grand Mosque amid heavy winds."

In addition to offering more than 160,000 tents for pilgrims, Mina is home to the Jamarat site, where "pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls," Gulf News reports.

Masses of people had been trying to reach that area, which includes a huge pedestrian bridge, when a sudden surge of pilgrims close to an intersection sparked the stampede, the Saudi Press Agency says.

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