October 1, 2015 / 7:29 AM / 2 years ago

Iran, Saudi Arabia seek to ease tensions as Iranian haj toll rises

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran and Saudi Arabia sought to tone down a war of words over last week’s haj disaster, with Riyadh offering condolences to its regional rival over what Tehran said on Thursday were 464 Iranians killed in the crush near Mecca.

A general view of members of the Saudi Red Crescent tending to pilgrims who were victims of a crush caused by large numbers of people pushing at Mina, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca in this handout picture published on Facebook account of the Saudi Red Crescent September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Saudi Red Crescent/Handout via Reuters

Saudi and Iranian media said the message of sympathy was delivered on Wednesday at a meeting between the two countries’ health ministers in the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

“The meeting was positive and the Saudi Minister announced the King’s condolences to the Supreme Leader, and the government and people of Iran,” Iranian Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Iran has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi Arabia for the Sept. 24 disaster at the annual Muslim pilgrimage, with officials accusing the kingdom of lack of cooperation over identifying the victims and transferring their bodies back home.

Iranian officials have alleged the overall total death toll is more than 1,000. Saudi Arabia has confirmed the deaths of 769 people.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei warned on Wednesday of “the harshest reaction” should Iranians be disrespected. The Shi‘ite theocracy is an arch foe of Sunni Muslim bastion Saudi Arabia. [IDn:L5N120283]

Iran had said 239 of its citizens were killed in the crush in Mina, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, and that 200 other pilgrims were missing, but on Thursday revised the death toll upwards.

“Seven days after the incident and after visiting hospitals (in Saudi Arabia) ... we sadly announce that the number of Iranians who died is 464,” the country’s Haj Organization said in a statement published on state TV website IRIB.

That makes the disaster Iran’s deadliest since more than 600 people were killed in an earthquake in 2005. It was the worst loss of life for quarter of a century at the annual rite in Saudi Arabia, which draws some two million pilgrims.

Saudi daily al-Riyadh said Health Minister Khalid al-Falih and his Iranian counterpart Hashemi had discussed the condition of wounded Iranian pilgrims and ways to repatriate the bodies of those who died.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said on Wednesday that Iran would not allow a single Iranian to be buried in Saudi Arabia.

“Al-Falih conveyed the condolences of the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, to the Iranian government and to the families of the victims, and asserted the wish of the kingdom’s government to cooperate with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” al-Riyadh said.

Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Catherine Evans

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