Mecca stampede
Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the 'Jamarat' ritual, the stoning of Satan, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on September 24, 2015. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has ordered a safety review on the Hajj pilgrimage after at least 717 pilgrims were killed in a stampede near the holy city of Mecca.

The king said that there was a need "to improve the level of organisation and management of movement" of the pilgrims who make their annual pilgrimage to the holy city.

A total of 863 pilgrims were injured in the stampede at Mina, where two million people were taking part in the Hajj's last major rite, the stoning of the devil. The Hajj is the fifth and final pillar of Islam that every able-bodied adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it.

Reuters , which described the stampede as the "worst haj disaster for 25 years," noted that safety during Hajj is a politically sensitive issue for Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.

King Salman, in offering deep condolences, said: "We have instructed concerned authorities to review the operations plan ... (and) to raise the level of organisation and management to ensure that the guests of God perform their rituals in comfort and ease."

Conflicting reports on what caused the stampede

Hajj stampede
Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca,on September 24, 2015. STR/AFP/Getty

In a news conference in Mina, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki said the investigation would look into what caused an "unusual mass" of pilgrims to congregate at the location of the disaster. "The reason for that is not known yet."

The Saudi government has set up a commission to investigate the incident, which took place in Mina, a large valley about 5km from Mecca. There are however conflicting reports on what had caused the stampede.

The Saudi Arabian interior ministry said the incident appeared to have been the result of two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection, according to Aljazeera.

Ministry spokesman al-Turki said high temperatures and fatigue might also have been factors in the disaster. However, Iran's head of Hajj organisation, Said Ohadi said that two paths had been closed off near the site where the stampede occurred.

"This caused this tragic incident," he claimed on state television, according to the Associated Press. He said the path closures for "unknown reasons" had left only three routes to the area where the stoning ceremony took place. A total of 125 Iranians are believed to have been killed in the stampede, according to news agencies in Iran.

The head of the Central Hajj Committee, Prince Khaled al-Faisal however blamed the stampede on "some pilgrims from African nationalities", according to Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV channel.

Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih echoed the same remarks, telling El-Ekhbariya television that "many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables [set by authorities, which was the] principal reason for this type of accident. If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided."

The Saudi Civil Defence said on its Twitter account that work was under way to separate large groups of people and to direct pilgrims to alternate routes. It said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to help the injured while helicopters were used to whisk away some of those injured in the crush.

World reaction

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Saudi government should accept responsibility for the crush. "Mismanagement and improper actions have caused this catastrophe," he said in a statement published on his website.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed sadness over the the incident, according to his spokesman Stephane Dujarric in a press conference.

In New York, Pope Francis offered prayers for those killed in Mina. "My sentiments of closeness in the face of tragedy. In this moment, I give assurance sof my prayers. I unite myself with you all. A prayer to all mighty God all merciful."

White House spokesman Ned Price said: "The United States expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the hundreds of haj pilgrims killed and hundreds more injured in the heartbreaking stampede in Mina, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Jordanian government expressed its condolence and sympathy while in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron offered condolences to the families of those killed in the stampede. The Foreign Office is working to establish if any UK citizens were involved.