Thousands of British families wait for news as more than 700 die in hajj pilgrimage tragedy

A crush at the annual hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca has killed more than 700 people.

The annual hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

The deadliest disaster to hit the sacred pilgrimage in 25 years has killed 717 people and injured 863, according to Saudi Arabia officials.

The tragedy has left shocked members of the Muslim community calling for a clear explanation of what went wrong.

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Thousands of families in Yorkshire are now waiting for news from their loved ones who had made the journey.

Rescuers respond to the stampede. Photo: Directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency via AP

A Bradford woman is reported to have died on the pilgramage but this was not connected to the stampede. Bradford West’s MP Naz Shah posted on Twitter this evening that she had been given confirmation that it was an unrelated death.

Some two million people from across the world take part in the five-day pilgrimage which began on Tuesday. It is estimated that around 25,000 British nationals head overseas from the UK to Saudi Arabia for the hajj,

Zulfi Karim of the Bradford Council for Mosques said between 5,000 to 7,000 people from the city were at the event.

He said: “We are hoping and praying for those people who are out there. There are a lot of people from the city out there at the moment and we are liaising with the Foreign Office and the tour companies.” The council is setting up a helpline for relatives.

It is not known if any of the dead are British but Foreign secretary Philip Hammond said the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is bolstering the size of its team on the ground as it seeks to “urgently gather information about British nationals who may require assistance”.

He said: “I was saddened to hear of the enormous loss of life in Mecca. My thoughts are with families and victims at this difficult time. Such a significant tragedy will affect Muslims across the world who take part in the hajj pilgrimage.”

FCO staff are “in close contact” with the Saudi authorities and tour operators, and are checking hospitals and other locations.

The crush happened in a morning surge of pilgrims at an intersection of street in Mina, a large valley about three miles east of Mecca.

The FCO has urged worried relatives in the UK to contact the its switchboard on 020 7008 1500.

Bradford man Ilyas Master, a tour operator with Omary agency, which is based in the city, is leading a party of 225 Britons who made the journey to Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post from the holy city, he said: “In my group everyone is safe and well.

“It happened in a different area where there are hardly any British people. As we were walking towards the Jamraat area we noticed a helicopter in the sky and an ambulance siren, then we realised something had happened.

“Everyone is shocked. There is a network problem but most people have been in touch with their families in the UK.

When asked if he agreed with the Saudi health minister Khaled al-Falih, who blamed ‘unruly pilgrims’ for causing the crush, Mr Master replied: “This type of incident has happened in the past but on a small level.

“The Saudi minister is right, people do not follow the right guidelines. The Saudi Arabian authorities do their best to serve the hajis.”

Each year pilgrims pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to go on the trip which all believers who can afford it are required to perform once, with people spending between £4,000-£5,000 for a typical pilgrimage.

Amateur video and pictures on social media showed images of dead bodies on the ground dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during the hajj.

Other pictures show people sitting in wheelchairs and being treated.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed at the Hajj pilgrimage.”

A message on behalf of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the stampede.

It added: “May Allah grant the martyrs a place in heaven. Praying for the injured in Mina stampede and for the safe return of all the Hajis.”

The tragedy happened as Muslims around the world celebrated the key festival of Eid al-Adha.

Mohammed Adree Sharif, , said he was “ absolutely shocked” and “horrified” by the deaths as the event had seemed to be well organised.

He told ITV News: “We had heard about things like that happening in the past. The whole point of having different levels and a lot of money being spent by the Saudi government was to make it easier for the pilgrims.

“Today people are supposed to be celebrating Eid as well and yet no one is really celebrating here - we are just wandering around in shock and thinking ‘for the grace of God, it could have been us’.”

Eid al-Adha is known as the Feast of the Sacrifice as it recalls Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah.

It is the worst tragedy to hit hajj in 25 years and comes just two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in the Saudi city of Mecca, the focal point of the hajj.

Saudi authorities deployed about 100,000 security forces this year to oversee crowd management and ensure pilgrims’ safety.