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Hajj stampede leaves 35 dead

MINA, Saudi Arabia — A stampede broke out Monday during the annual hajj, killing 35 Muslims during the symbolic "stoning of the devil" ritual, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

The news agency said 23 women and 12 men were killed and an unknown number of people were injured. No trace of the tragedy remained hours after it occurred. The enormous crowd was calm, with many unaware of the deaths.

Helicopters flew overhead and policemen urged people to move on. Scores of ambulances were parked nearby. The last of more than 2 million pilgrims were to complete the ritual on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Security and safety have been major concerns at the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that is a pillar of the Islamic faith. The hajj, which began this weekend, must be performed once in a lifetime by every Muslim who is able to do so.

The stoning-of-the-devil ritual has been a source of tragedy in the past. A 1998 stampede killed 180 people. A 1997 fire in Mina, the city where the stoning takes place, tore through the sprawling, overcrowded tent city, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500. In 1994, a stampede killed 270 pilgrims.

Pilgrims come to Mina from Mecca to cast pebbles the size of chickpeas at three columns of stone that symbolize the devil as they chant, "In the name of God, God is great."

The pillars symbolizing the devil are at the center of giant ramps built to accommodate the huge crowds of pilgrims who must complete the ritual by dusk. Muslim tradition says it was here that the devil tried to tempt the Prophet Abraham to disobey God by refusing to sacrifice his son.

According to tradition, God instructed Abraham to sacrifice a sheep instead, and Muslims around the world now follow suit, sacrificing camels and cattle to mark Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

Once they complete the stoning ritual, pilgrims shave or clip their hair and then slaughter more than a half million camels, cows and sheep near Mina, a tent city that only comes to life during the hajj.

The hajj peaked on Sunday with prayers on Mount Arafat, a hill outside the holy city of Mecca where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon in 632.

This year, a health concern shadowed the hajj: possible infections of foot-and-mouth disease among the animals slaughtered during the rituals.

While Saudi authorities have said all animals to be slaughtered were free from disease, Muslims around the world, especially in Europe, were unable to perform the sacrifice following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which infects cloven-hoofed animals, after many countries imposed import and export bans on the animals.

The kingdom's top religious authority, Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, said recently that the sacrifice was not a compulsory part of hajj or the feast and advised Muslims not to put themselves at risk to perform it.

"Sacrifice is not obligatory," he was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency. "It does not apply to anyone who is not able."

Pilgrims can go to slaughterhouses to buy and slaughter animals themselves or they can pay a bank or company to do it on their behalf. Meat is sent to the needy in 27 countries.