The Saudi Press Agency did not provide a death toll in its account of the stampede, but said there would be a statement later. Estimates of the death toll increased dramatically during the day. Reuters initially said its journalists counted at least 50 bodies on the ground covered in white shrouds, and later quoted unnamed medics at the scene who estimated the number of dead was in the hundreds, possibly up to 300. The Saudi Health Minister, Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Maneh, said 345 were killed and nearly 300 were injured, according to Agence France-Presse.
The security spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Major General Eng. Mansour bin Sultan Al-Turki, said the stampede occurred at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat Bridge in Mena, a valley outside Mecca, when luggage dropped from moving buses, causing "stumbling and scrambling among pilgrims," the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Security forces cordoned off the area in an attempt to rescue and provide aid for the trampled pilgrims, Mr. Al-Turki said, according to the press agency. Rescue efforts are underway and a statement will be issued later in the day, he said.
An estimated 2 million Muslims today were at the bridge performing the final rites of hajj, the fifth and final pillar of Islam, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied adult Muslim is expected to take at least once in their lives. Pilgrims perform a series of ritual acts symbolic of the lives of Abraham and his wife, Hagar.
After today's ritual, during which pilgrims hurl stones at three pillars representing the devil in a symbolic purging of sin, Muslims are expected to make a final visit to the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca.
The stampede today broke out as tens of thousands of pilgrims filed past the pillars.
An Egyptian religious scholar who lives in the United States, Suad Abu Hamada, arrived shortly after the stampede and said the scene "brings tears to your eyes."
"I heard screaming and I looked around and saw people jumping over each other," Mr. Hamada told The Associated Press. "Police came and cordoned off the area. They starting pulling out bodies. The bodies were piled up. I couldn't count them, they were too many."
The stoning ritual has been marred by stampedes in the past, including one in 1990 that killed 1,426 people and another in February 2004 that killed 244, the A. P. reported.
After this year's hajj, the Jamarat Bridge will be replaced with a more elaborate bridge involving a four-level system of entrances and exits to the three walls, Reuters reported.
By SHADI RAHIMI