TEHRAN: The first bodies of Iranians killed in a stampede at the hajj arrived home from Saudi Arabia yesterday after a controversial nine-day delay and questions over the final death toll. President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials laid white flowers on coffins at a somber ceremony in Tehran for the 104 pilgrims - among 464 Iranians declared dead in the Sept 24 crush. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of incompetence in its handling of safety at the hajj, further souring relations already strained by the civil war in Syria and conflict in Yemen. "If it were proved that some (authorities) were guilty in this accident, we will not forgive," Rouhani said as the bodies emerged in red caskets from a cargo plane at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran.
The president was accompanied by the heads of Iran's judiciary and parliament as well as the chief of staff of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office. "Our language in this accident was one of brotherhood and respect and the language of diplomacy was used when necessary," Rouhani said. "If needed, the language of authority will also be used." Iran has been deeply critical of the slow pace at which the Saudi authorities have identified the dead.
More bodies were expected to be flown home later yesterday, but Iran's health minister said not all of the Iranian dead had yet been found and many were thought to be lying unidentified in sealed containers. "We hope with Saudi cooperation, we can find the bodies of these victims which might be among the corpses from other countries," Hassan Hashemi told the official IRNA news agency. Iranian families face a further delay in receiving their loved ones for burial as DNA testing has been deemed necessary. "The ID tags on the coffins do not match the victims' identities and the existing lists in Mehrabad Airport," the ISNA news agency cited an unnamed official as saying.
The tragedy will be marked with memorial ceremonies in Tehran and in provincial capitals today. Khamenei, Iran's supreme guide, demanded on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia apologize to the bereaved and to the world's Muslims. "The slightest disrespect towards tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah and not fulfilling their obligation to transfer holy bodies will have Iran's tough and fierce reaction," he said.
Rouhani called for a fact-finding commission into the disaster as all Islamic countries deserved to know the cause. Saudi authorities have yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of the 769 pilgrims they say died, but many countries have provided their own individual tolls. Tallies of the dead from foreign officials and media from 24 countries put the dead at 1,036, well in excess of the Saudi figure. With many more pilgrims still listed as missing, Iranian officials say the real death toll is between 2,000 and 4,000, and many of the dead have yet to be identified.
It took a week before Iran was able to confirm 464 of its nationals had died as officials spent days scouring Saudi hospitals for the missing without success. It is the highest confirmed death toll among foreign nationalities by far. Egypt has 126 dead and 110 missing, and Indonesia has 91 dead. While Iran has been vocal, official reaction elsewhere in the Muslim world has been more restrained, although survivors and bereaved families have criticized safety measures in place at the hajj. - AFP