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By Amro Hassan and Laura King, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CAIRO — At least 717 pilgrims were killed Thursday in a crowd crush outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s civil defense directorate said.

More than 700 others were reported hurt in the stampede, which occurred in Mena, close to Mecca, during the last major rite of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, according to the official Saudi press agency.

It was the worst disaster in years involving the pilgrimage, which drew about 2 million Muslim faithful this year. The hajj, which began earlier this week, culminates in the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, beginning Thursday.

Civil defense officials said in a statement that rescue teams were at work treating the injured and collecting and identifying the dead.

The cause of Thursday’s disaster was not immediately clear, but in the past such stampedes have taken place when some of those in a tightly packed crowd begin fainting or suffocating in the crush, and the ensuing panic then causes more casualties from trampling and asphyxiation.

Thousands had gathered Thursday for the rite of “stoning the devil,” in which the faithful hurl pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan. In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a crowd crush during the ritual, and safety improvements were implemented in the wake of that episode.

The pilgrimage is designated as one of the five pillars of Islam, and the devout believe that all Muslims who are physically able should perform the hajj at least once in their lives.

This year’s hajj had already been marked by one deadly accident, when a construction crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque this month during preparations for the pilgrimage, killing 109 people.

(Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writer King from Istanbul.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Health workers help the injured in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi authorities said the total number of pilgrims killed in the stampede Thursday in Mecca has risen to 453. (Sabaq Website/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

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