464 Iran pilgrims dead in Saudi hajj disaster, state media says

Sept. 29, 2015: A female Iranian hajj pilgrim, right, weeps as she and her travel companion, second left, are welcomed by their relatives upon arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini airport, Iran.

Sept. 29, 2015: A female Iranian hajj pilgrim, right, weeps as she and her travel companion, second left, are welcomed by their relatives upon arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini airport, Iran.  (AP)

Iran's death toll from the Saudi hajj disaster has nearly doubled to 464 pilgrims killed, state media reported Thursday, a development that is likely to further strain ties between the Mideast rivals.

It wasn't immediately clear how the rise in the Islamic Republic's death toll, based on a hajj department statement posted on the website of Iranian state television, would affect the overall toll from the Sept. 24 disaster near Islam's holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia's Healthy Ministry reported Saturday that the crush and stampede killed at least 769 pilgrims and injured 934. Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Iran all have said the toll may be higher.

Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran's hajj department, later told state television that Iranian officials are trying to return bodies of Iranian pilgrims "as soon as possible." He said Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed not to bury any of the dead in Saudi Arabia without prior permission by Iran or the families of the deceased.

A state television newscaster also said missing Iranian pilgrims who remain unaccounted for are included in this latest toll.

Saudi state media and officials had no immediate comment on the Iranian announcement, though they say they are investigating what caused the crush and stampede in Mina.

The disaster has fed into the bitter regional rivalry between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran, which back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

On Wednesday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of "harsh" measures if the kingdom failed to promptly repatriate the bodies of the Islamic Republic's dead.

"The Saudi government is not carrying out its obligation to repatriate and in some cases shows slyness," Khamenei told military commanders in northern Iran in comments broadcast on state TV. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far showed self-restraint, observed Islamic decency and brotherly respect in the Islamic world, but they should know that Iran's hand is superior to many others and has more capabilities."

"If (Iran) wants to react to disturbing and sinister elements, their situation will not be good," Khamenei added.

Iran has led a chorus of international criticism directed at Saudi Arabia's response to the incident, saying its diplomats were not given access to victims until days after the stampede. That's a criticism also levied by Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous country.

Iranians have staged daily protests near the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and President Hassan Rouhani devoted a significant part of his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday to blaming Saudi authorities for the disaster and demanding it be "fully investigated."

Indonesia, Pakistan and India all have said their diplomats received some 1,100 pictures of the dead in the hajj disaster, suggesting a higher death toll than what Saudi officials have announced. Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that the photos are of those who died during the entire pilgrimage and not just at the disaster just outside Mecca.

The accusations of mismanagement of the pilgrimage strike at a key pillar of the Saudi royal family's prestige, with King Salman holding the title of the "custodian of the two holy mosques."

This year's hajj drew some 2 million pilgrims from 180 countries, though in previous years it has drawn more than 3 million without any major incidents. Able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the five-day pilgrimage once in their lifetime, and each year poses a massive logistical challenge for the kingdom.

But even before the hajj began, disaster struck Mecca as a tower construction crane crashed into the Grand Mosque on Sept. 11, killing at least 111 people.