UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iran’s president on Monday blamed Saudi “incompetence” for the mass deaths of Muslim pilgrims four days ago during the hajj in Saudi Arabia, comments that stoked already high tensions between the two Middle East rivals.
The Saudi Health Ministry’s latest figures, released Saturday, put the toll at 769 people killed and 934 injured in Mina. President Hassan Rouhani said thousands died but did not elaborate on specific numbers nor provide the source for his figures.
The largest number of casualties identified thus far is from Iran. Tehran already has accused Riyadh of mismanaging the annual pilgrimage and has vowed to take legal action against it, but Rouhani’s comments appeared to be among the strongest criticism to date.
Iran’s Mission to the United Nations said Rouhani was cancelling events on Tuesday and would return to Tehran after addressing the U.N. gathering because of “the tragic events” at the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
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The Saudis are the region’s major U.S. allies. Even while suggesting that the July 14 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers could serve as the basis of further cooperation with Washington, Rouhani criticized the Americans for supporting “regional allies who only cultivate the seeds of division and extremism” — an apparent allusion to the Saudis.
Suggesting that Iran was ready to end more than three decades of enmity with America, Rouhani declared: We will not forget the past, but we do not wish to live in the past.”
At the same time, he laid the blame at Washington’s feet for the present turmoil in the Middle East, declaring that “the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes” had the Americans not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and were it not supporting Israel “against the oppressed nation of Palestine.”