Mecca Hotel Collapse Death Toll at 76

Hundreds of men using cranes, hand tools and blow torches pulled bodies from the rubble of a four-story building that collapsed in Islam's holiest city, and authorities said Friday the death toll reached at least 76.

The Saudi Interior Ministry also said Thursday's collapse injured 62. The nationalities of the victims were not released.

The disaster marred the start of the annual gathering of millions of Muslims for the hajj pilgrimage that begins Monday. More than 1 million attended Friday prayers in the Grand Mosque, which is just 200 feet away from the building that collapsed.

On Friday afternoon, about 24 hours after the collapse, workers called off the search for survivors in the pile of concrete and steel. The building had shops and restaurants and was used as a hotel during the hajj.

"We did all we can. The operation is now over," said the general in charge of the site, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Hundreds of men had worked through Thursday night, under spotlights and with cranes and blow torches, to remove huge slabs of concrete, occasionally stopping to use microphones to listen for survivors. While people were rescued Thursday, workers found nobody alive Friday.

"Fortunately, the building was almost empty when it collapsed, because most of the residents were in the holy shrine," civil defense Maj. Gen. Alwani, who did not provide his first name, told state-run Al-Ekhbariya television. "Most of the casualties were from the passers-by."

An unidentified government official told Al-Ekhbariya the building's foundations were cracked and weak.

However, the operator of the hotel, Habib Turkestani, a relative of the Saudi owner, told The Associated Press the structure was safe.

"What happened was a matter of fate and divine decree," Turkestani said.

He said the hotel guests included 18 French citizens of Tunisian origin, four British nationals of Bangladeshi origin and four people from the United Arab Emirates. Other victims are believed to be from Indonesia.

Tunisia said four of its nationals were killed while in Cairo.

The Interior Ministry said no Egyptian nationals were among the dead.

The injured were treated in hospitals in Mecca and Jiddah, about 40 miles to the east.

"It was a horrible accident, but my Muslim brothers who died will go to paradise," said a Pakistani pilgrim, Rahimi Farouki, referring to the victims.

According to Islam, anyone who dies on the way to, or during, the hajj is a martyr and goes to heaven.

The Prophet Mohammed was born in Mecca. The courtyard of its Grand Mosque contains the Kaaba, a large stone structure that Muslims around the world face during their daily prayers.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims are obliged to undertake at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. The other pillars are to profess that there is only one god and Mohammed is his prophet, to pray five times daily, to give alms and to fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The number of pilgrims to Mecca has increased elevenfold during the past 15 years. During that time, the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars to improve accommodations, transportation and medical facilities for the "guests of Allah."

The hajj has suffered numerous tragedies in recent years. The worst was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were killed during a stampede in an overcrowded tunnel leading to a holy site in Mecca.

On the hajj's final day in 2004, 251 people were trampled to death when the crowd panicked during the stoning of the devil ritual.

This year's pilgrimage also has caused tensions between Saudi Arabia and neighboring Iraq, with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari claiming that Saudi authorities were preventing the entry of Iraqi pilgrims to Mecca.

In response, the spokesman for Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj on Friday accused al-Jaafari of unfairly distributing slots for Iraqis allowed under a special quota agreed by the Organization of Islamic Countries. The spokesman accused the prime minister of choosing the pilgrims on a "regional and even sectarian basis."

The dispute threatens to worsen relations between the Iraqi Shiite-led government and Saudi Arabia, which is considered a pioneer of Sunni Islam.