Archive for October 1, 2015


September 29, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the international community on Monday to step up efforts to address the refugee crisis which has uprooted thousands from their homes and forced them to flee to surrounding countries and Europe.

Davutoglu, speaking with journalists at the U.N. on Monday, said that the only way to prevent new waves of refugees flowing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is to stop atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and the Islamic State group and to create safe areas for Syrians within their country.

“The refugee issue was seen by the international community at first as if it’s a Syrian issue, later it was seen as a Turkish or neighboring countries’ crisis, but now it is clear that the refugee issue is a global crisis, a crisis which we cannot ignore, which we cannot forget.”

Of the 1.9 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey, only about 300,000 are in refugee camps, while the vast majority has taken up life in towns and cities along the border. Turkey this year began stopping cargo ships from taking Syrians and others to Italy. The Turkish action drove those migrants to try the shorter but dangerous Aegean Sea crossing to Greece.

Decrying what he sees as the “minimal” engagement of the international community in tackling the issue, he expressed hope that “after this U.N. General Assembly’s meetings, there will be more awareness and the international community will be more effective on this matter.”

The prime minister laid heavy blame on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has used barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.

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September 23, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — As refugees try to use a land route from Turkey as an alternate way into the European Union, Ankara has begun enforcing long-dormant rules on Syrians’ travel, in part over concerns about how the flow is affecting the country’s image, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with officials and migrants.

So far the moves appear ad hoc and aimed only at preventing refugees from reaching the Turkish frontier city of Edirne, where hundreds are staging a sit-in near the Greek border. But one academic said it was a sign of a more-determined effort by Turkey to get a handle on the country’s massive refugee population.

“In the case of Syrians, this is the first time they are trying to be strict on movement,” said Ahmet Icduygu, who directs the Migration Research Center at Istanbul’s Koc University. “They’re clamping down.”

The one-page Interior Ministry document, dated Aug. 29, says officials consider that “Syrians who are trying to go to third countries through our country illegally are posing a threat to public order and public security and are negatively affecting our country’s image internationally.”

It orders checks on Syrians’ documents at the entrance and exit to each province and asks law enforcement to tell transport companies that Syrians are not allowed to leave the provinces where they have registered without permission. The document only refers to Syrians, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s roughly 2 million refugees.

The effect of the order, whose authenticity was confirmed by two government officials, was that hundreds of Syrians who tried to reach Edirne to join their fellows last week found themselves stuck for days just outside a sprawling bus terminal in Esenler on the European side of Istanbul.

Hundreds of people, most of them Syrian, camped for days in and around a nearby mosque, many sleeping rough behind a cordon of police in riot gear. Most were mystified by the refusal of bus companies to sell them tickets.

“I don’t know why they say no, really,” Muthana Al-Abdullah, a 22-year-old engineering student from Aleppo, told the AP at Esenler. Three bus company managers at the station confirmed that they had been instructed to refuse tickets to Syrians. On Sunday — when the crowds were leaving — one of the managers said rules had been relaxed again.

Ankara has been extraordinarily generous to people from Syria in the years since civil war broke out there. The number of refugees Turkey hosts far outstrips all neighboring European countries put together and has turned the country into the world’s No. 1 host of refugees overall. But even though the Turks have spent some $7.6 billion feeding and housing the influx, many struggle to make ends meet.

“There is no future for my my children here at all,” said Mohammed Ali Al-Baya, a 40-year-old cell phone salesman from Aleppo who was among those stuck at the bus station. He and his compatriots say they don’t want to risk the dangerous boat trip across the Aegean Sea taken by so many others and had organized with the help of a Facebook group to travel to Edirne and try to walk to Greece en masse and on foot.

That border rush appears to have been a step too far for Turkish officials, who continue to block the refugees who reached Edirne from approaching the border. For Al-Baya and others stuck at the station, it was it the first time they had ever been prevented from traveling within Turkey.

One senior government official said the Interior Ministry document was a reminder of pre-existing rules that bar Syrians from leaving the province they have registered in. He said the aim was to prevent “unauthorized mobilizations” and that Syrians with travel passes could still circulate freely. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be named.

Nazir Hakim, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group with offices in Turkey, said that it was wrong to speak of new restrictions on his fellow Syrians. But he acknowledged that Ankara was reinforcing its existing rules.

“Before, they closed their eyes,” he said. “Now, they apply the law.”

September 29, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban captured the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday in a multi-pronged attack involving hundreds of fighters, the first time the insurgents have seized a major urban area since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The fast-moving assault took military and intelligence agencies by surprise as the insurgents descended on the city, one of Afghanistan’s richest and the target of repeated Taliban offensives as the militants spread their fight across the country following the withdrawal last year of U.S. and NATO combat troops.

Within 12 hours of launching the offensive around 3 a.m., the militants had reached the main square, tearing down photographs of President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders and raising the white flag of the Taliban movement, residents reported.

More than 600 prisoners, including 140 Taliban fighters, were released from the city’s jail, and many people were trying to reach the airport to flee the city. “Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press. “Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at the same time.”

The Taliban used social media to claim the “conquest” of Kunduz and reassure residents that the extremist group — responsible for the vast majority of nearly 5,000 civilian casualties in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations — came in peace.

A statement attributed to the group’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the self-styled Islamic emir of Afghanistan, said: “The citizens of Kunduz should not worry about safeguarding their lives and properties. Carry out your ordinary livelihoods in absolute security. All traders, workers, staff of hospitals, municipality and governing bodies should continue their daily routines without any fear or intimidation.”

The Taliban have a history of brutality toward those they regard as apostates, and have banned girls from school as well as music, movies and other trappings of modern life in areas under their control.

The fall of Kunduz marks a major setback for government forces, who have struggled to combat the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO shifted to a supporting role at the end of last year. The city is a strategic prize for the Taliban and its capture, however short-lived, is sure to be used as a propaganda victory. This year’s fight has severely tested Afghan forces, who lack air power and must rely on the United States for selective airstrikes, and suffer huge casualties and low morale. Nevertheless, they have largely held their ground in the face of a Taliban strategy clearly aimed at forcing them to spread resources ever-thinly across the country.

Sediqqi said military reinforcements were being sent to Kunduz, where government forces managed to fend off a major Taliban assault in April, the start of the insurgents’ annual summer offensive. “We are trying our best to clear the city as soon as possible,” he said.

Kunduz has been regularly targeted by the Taliban, who have allied with other insurgents, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and militants driven into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan by an assault on their hideouts near the porous border.

Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy chief of army staff, said Monday’s attack involved a large number of Taliban drawn from across the north and included foreign fighters, likely Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members with an eye on the Central Asian states to Afghanistan’s north.

“Strategic areas, including the airport, are controlled by Afghan security forces,” he said. “Reinforcements have already arrived and attacks on the insurgent positions will be launched soon,” he added, without elaborating.

Sediqqi said the target of the Taliban assault was the city’s main prison and police headquarters. Earlier, deputy presidential spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, had called the situation “fluid,” saying Ghani was “in constant contact with the security and defense leadership to provide them with guidance.”

“Our first priority is the safety and security of residents,” he said. Analyst Faheem Dashty said Afghan security and intelligence agencies had been “caught by surprise” in what appeared to be a “big failure” of security and intelligence.

“They were expecting a big attack but couldn’t defend the city,” he said. Authorities were similarly blind-sided by the April attack and subsequent massing of fighters across the northern provinces, raising questions about the adequacy of the government’s security and defense agencies.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an ongoing military operation, said the U.S. military was aware the Taliban had taken control of a hospital and a number of government buildings in the city, and that both sides — the Taliban and government forces — had sustained a significant number of casualties.

Early indications were that the Afghan forces were in position to push back the attackers and regain control of the city, although the outcome was still in doubt, said the official, speaking earlier Monday before the government announced the fall of the city.

The Kunduz assault highlights the resilience of the Taliban following the revelation earlier this year that their reclusive longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died two years ago. A bitter internal dispute over the appointment of Mansoor has yet to be fully resolved, but seems to have had little impact on the battlefield.

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

September 14, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — More than 350 inmates escaped an Afghan prison following a coordinated attack by Taliban insurgents, an Afghan official and the Taliban said.

Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, deputy governor of Ghazni province, said Monday that insurgents wearing military uniforms launched a well-organized attack early Monday morning that included using a suicide bomber to breach the compound’s walls. Four guards were killed and seven others were wounded, while three insurgents were also killed, Ahmadi said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on the Ghazni prison in an email sent to the media. A total of 355 prisoners escaped, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement, and only 82 prisoners remain in custody in the prison.

However Ahmadi added that 20 of the prison’s most dangerous inmates had been transferred to another facility a day earlier after a fight broke out. Officials in Ghazni said that there were attacks by the Taliban in at least 10 different parts of the city overnight.

“There was an organized attack around 2:00 a.m. on the Ghazni prison, to make their plan successful the enemy at the same time launched attacks in different locations of the city as well,” Ahmadi said, adding that the suicide car bomber breached the jail’s entrance gates while security forces were busy defending other parts of the city.

“At least 148 of the escaped inmates are considered to be a serious threat to national security,” the Interior Ministry statement said, adding that three of the escaped prisoners have been recaptured so far.

September 18, 2015

CHEMNITZ, Germany (AP) — It was pitch-dark by the time the Syrian refugee family arrived in the eastern German town that was to be their new home. As they prepared to get off the train, a drunken skinhead stumbled past with a glare that made 11-year-old Raghad huddle closer to her mom.

The five members of the Habashieh family took a taxi to the asylum center assigned to them by a computer in Berlin. It was a former army barracks used by the Soviets and by the Nazis before them, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire.

That’s when Raghad lost it and began to cry. “I’m scared, I hate this,” she burst out, staring at the forbidding gates. For the Habashiehs — mother Khawla Kareem, 19-year-old daughter Reem, sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15, and little Raghad — it was the end of a draining day, the latest in a string of draining days in a terrifying journey to a new life. It has taken them from bombed-out Damascus; over the choppy Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy; across the Balkans at the mercy of human traffickers; and finally through Austria by minibus and into the promised land of Germany.

Beyond the gates, young migrant men lined up in the gloom, dimly illuminated by floodlights, waiting to get plastic bags stuffed with rolls and wrapped cheese, a late dinner. A police officer with a gun in his belt stood nearby, surveying the scene.

The sinister barracks, in a depressed part of Germany that’s a far cry from the vibrancy of Berlin, gave the Habashiehs their first inkling that the land of dreams may not be all that they had hoped for.

The latest leg of the Habashiehs’ odyssey began in the afternoon in the German capital. Having received their papers — stamped with passport photos — a new address and train tickets, they boarded a red double-decker train Wednesday that wound its way south to Chemnitz, through endless pine tree forests, past green lawns and countless wind turbines with red lights blinking into the gathering gloom.

Inside the train, the Habashiehs sat together in a compartment with their three huge black suitcases, plastic bags stuffed with shoes, winter coats and toys, as well as two umbrellas — all the new belongings they have amassed since arrival in Germany.

After two weeks in Berlin, the family was being uprooted again and heading back into the unknown. Unlike Berlin, with its immigrant neighborhoods, dozens of mosques and Arabic and Turkish stores dotted over the city, Chemnitz — known as Karl-Marx-Stadt during Communist times — has only three mosques and fewer than 500 Syrians among the city’s 14,000 foreign inhabitants.

The family wondered what it was getting into.

“I heard from people that the place where we are going to in eastern Germany is not good,” Khawla Kareem said, “and the people there do not accept foreigners.”

Wearing a black headscarf adorned with yellow flower patterns, the elementary school teacher said she was having second thoughts about whether it was the right decision to flee with her children to Germany. Her husband died three years ago, so it’s up to her to make all the decisions. Deep down, she knows that the ongoing war back home in Syria made life too dangerous there.

As unfamiliar landscapes sped by, Raghad practiced some of the German words she has picked up so far. Her mother mumbled a Muslim phrase at sunset, breaking fast with orange juice and some cold left-over French fries. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was one week away, and Khawla Kareem was fasting from dawn until dusk as some believers do in the ten days before the feast.

In the past, before Syria was ravaged by a brutal civil war, the family would sometimes slaughter a sheep for the holiday, according to tradition, but this year they probably won’t be celebrating. After all, they don’t even know where they will be sleeping a week from now.

When she found out her family had to leave Berlin for eastern Germany, Khawla Kareem was so worried that she considered tearing apart their papers and filing a new asylum application, in hopes of getting relocated to a better place.

“But then I was telling myself that I don’t want to do anything illegal, that this is our fate, that we will persevere until residence will be granted,” she said. “And then I can pick the best place for my children also for schools and to go to universities.”

While the majority of Germans have been giving the recent floods of refugees a warm welcome, a vocal minority has been staging violent protests in front of asylum homes, especially in eastern Germany. Earlier this year, Saxony’s capital of Dresden for months saw weekly rallies by tens of thousands of people protesting the perceived Islamization of the West.

Overall, Germany expects as many as a million refugees by the end of this year, with hundreds of thousands coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

While several other European countries have been trying to seal off their borders to keep out the migrants, Germany has surprised the world with its welcoming attitude toward refugees. However, the sheer volume of people — with thousands crossing the southern border into Germany every day — has cities and communities on the edge and struggling to find accommodation for the newcomers. In September alone, Germany expects more than 100,000 asylum-seekers.

Another grim surprise awaited the exhausted Habashieh family at the asylum center.

When Khawla Kareem handed their papers to a guard, he ushered them into the compound through a revolving door. There, another guard told them through gestures that the center was full, and they had to be relocated again. None of the officials spoke much English or Arabic, so they couldn’t find out where they were being sent.

The family sat on the lawn in front of two white tents with all of their belongings, until six in the morning. Finally, a bus picked them up and drove them about an hour away, to a cavernous hall filled with hundreds of asylum seekers.

Inside, black cots had been set up behind white sheets, a hopeless effort to grant some privacy.

Nobody told them where in Germany they were. It was only with the help of the GPS on her smartphone that Reem, the oldest daughter, finally found out they were somewhere on the outskirts of Dresden.

They still don’t know how long they will have to stay there.

“We have no idea what will happen next,” Reem said. “It’s a nightmare.”

October 01, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised the Palestinian flag at the United Nations for the first time on Wednesday with a promise that it will be raised soon in Jerusalem, “the capital of our Palestinian state.”

More than 300 ministers, diplomats and well-wishers who crowded into the rose garden at U.N. headquarters where a temporary flagpole had been erected for the ceremony applauded his words. Among them were the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran and ambassadors from many countries including France. The United States, which does not recognize the state of Palestine, did not send a representative, the U.S. Mission said.

Abbas told the crowd it was an historic moment on the road to Palestinian independence. Palestine was designated as a non-member observer state at the United Nations in November 2012 and Palestinian statehood also has been recognized by many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As the black, white, green and red flag went up the flagpole, cheers and shouts of “Peace! Peace! Palestine!” erupted. The Palestinians campaigned for a General Assembly resolution that was overwhelmingly approved on Sept. 10 allowing U.N. observer states to fly their flags alongside those of the 193 U.N. member states. The Holy See and Palestine are the only two non-member U.N. observer states.

In contrast to the Palestinians, the Holy See flag was raised outside U.N. headquarters alongside flags of the 193 U.N. member states without fanfare or ceremony just before Pope Francis arrived last Friday to address the General Assembly. The permanent flagpole for the Palestinian flag is already in place beside it.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Wednesday a day of “pride” and “hope” for Palestinians around the world. He urged the Palestinians to pursue their long-held dream for their own state by first uniting Gaza and the West Bank, and he urged Israel and the Palestinians to revive negotiations that collapsed last year and conclude “a successful peace process.”

That will lead to the unfurling of the Palestinian flag “in its proper place — among the family of nations as a sovereign member state of the United Nations,” Ban said.

September 28, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians clashed with Israeli riot police after barricading themselves in a mosque at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, throwing firebombs and rocks at officers outside during a major Jewish holiday on Monday.

The hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two biblical Jewish temples. Muslims revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Police said young protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque at the site, despite an order permitting only men over the age of 50 from entering the compound for prayers. Israel has imposed the ban at times of unrest in the past as it is mostly young Palestinians who throw rocks at the holy site. Women of all ages are allowed to enter.

Spokeswoman Luba Samri said Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other projectiles at the Al-Aqsa mosque overnight. She said police had tried to negotiate with the Waqf — the Islamic religious authority that oversees the compound — to call for calm, but talks failed and police entered the compound to seize the “dangerous devices intended to harm visitors to the site and police and endanger their lives.”

Palestinians threw rocks, firebombs and firecrackers from within the mosque at police, Samri said, adding that the fire bombs sparked a fire at the entrance to the mosque. Waqf guards didn’t prevent the “desecration of the sanctity of the place,” she said.

Officers later managed to restore calm but sporadic Palestinian stone throwing persisted throughout the morning, she said. It was the second day in a row of violence at the site. Monday’s unrest occurred on the first day of Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following the exodus from Egypt.

In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews are expected to visit the city throughout the holiday period, raising the risk of further unrest. Rumors have swirled among Palestinians that Jews are planning to take over the holy site, which has fueled tensions. Those rumors were exacerbated earlier this month by calls from a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

Palestinians say in the last two months there has been a new development where Israel has intermittently restricted some Muslims from the compound when Jews visit. Israel says this is to reduce friction, but Palestinians claim that Israel intends to establish Muslim-free Jewish visiting hours, which they fear could upset the fragile arrangement in place.

Israel insists it will not allow the delicate status quo governing the site to be changed. But its actions have drawn criticism from Jordan, with whom it has a peace treaty, and other Arab countries. And the site is so sensitive that even rumors are enough to trigger unrest. Israel has also blamed Palestinian leaders for inciting the unrest.

Non-Muslim visitors are only allowed to enter the site at specific hours and are banned by police from praying there. However many Muslims view these visits as a provocation and accuse Jewish extremists of a plot to take over the site.

The hilltop compound is so holy for Jews that they traditionally have refrained from praying there, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel’s chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have issued directives urging people not to ascend the Temple Mount — arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.

But there is a movement advocating the rights for Jews to pray at the hilltop. Some try and get around the ban on prayers by secretly mumbling the words. The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, a small group that seeks the construction of a new Jewish temple on the site, has called for a march to the compound on Wednesday — Israeli police have promised to prevent them from getting close to the site.

There were several days of clashes about two weeks ago, Muslim protesters barricaded themselves inside the mosque while hurling stones and fireworks at police. The unrest spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters hurled stones at police and Israeli cars.

An Israeli died when Palestinians pelted his car with rocks and several others were injured in other incidents. Dozens of Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces in violence that followed the Jerusalem unrest then.

Israel responded last week by approving harsher measures that would loosen the rules of engagement for police to respond to stone throwers.

September 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese government is launching a campaign to register 100,000 new students from among the Syrian refugee population in its already overwhelmed public schools.

The figure is double the number of refugees who were able to enroll last year. Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said Monday this will give more refugee children a chance at free education. But he cautioned that nearly the same number of Syrian refugee children are still out of schools.

He says that if more refugee children enroll in schools, this may stem the flow of migrants from the region to Europe. Lebanon is struggling with at least 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees who fled their country’s civil war, now in its fifth year.

Bou Saab says Syrians could soon outnumber Lebanese in public schools.

September 14, 2015

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Jumaa Ibrahim and his wife Hasnaa Karam, a Syrian couple in their early 60s, arrived in Mecca on Friday, and headed straight to Islam’s holiest site, the cube-shaped Kaaba.

It had begun to rain in the ancient desert city. Karam, who had waited a lifetime to make the pilgrimage to stand before the Kaaba, stood with her palms facing toward the sky in prayer. Ibrahim stood a few feet to her side, quietly reading verses from the Quran.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoed. Karam found herself surrounded by carnage — body parts were scattered everywhere amid pools of blood on the white marble floor of the mosque. The kingdom’s Civil Defense says unusually strong winds tipped over one of the massive cranes around the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba. The crane crashed through part of the mosque’s roof and upper floors, sending concrete slabs crashing down.

“I saw a head, legs, blood, dead people,” Karam said Sunday, interviewed at her husband’s bedside in Mecca’s Al-Noor Specialist Hospital. “We started saying ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’ as the rain poured down.”

She escaped injury, but her husband was among the hundreds injured, his leg broken in two parts. The death toll reached 111 on Sunday as more of the injured died. The Health Ministry on Sunday said 394 people were treated at medical facilities after the crane collapse, and 158 of the injured remain hospitalized.

Ayman Shaaban, the owner of a hajj tour company in Egypt, was praying on the ground floor of the Grand Mosque when the crane collapsed. He says he was tossed some 20 meters (66 feet). He was immediately rushed into a large room with other injured people, the right side of his face broken, bloodied and swollen, unable to open his left eye.

Saudi media reported that a committee has been established to investigate the incident. It is unclear how the kingdom’s Civil Defense, which led rescue operations, was able to determine that winds caused the crane’s collapse. The spokesman for Civil Defense could not be immediately reached for comment.

Shaaban has questions about the cause of the accident. “Logically speaking, for a crane to fall from wind, even if there were strong winds, something doesn’t add up,” Shaaban said from his hospital bed. “If there is negligence, because of these souls lost, someone must be held accountable.”

Such concerns indicate the sensitivity of the incident for Saudi King Salman, whose title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the first mosque built by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. The king visited the Grand Mosque on Saturday and later met with some of the injured being treated at the government-run Al-Noor hospital.

The Al Saud royal family’s legitimacy is rooted in part in its claim to be the protectors of Islam’s two most sacred sites that are at the center of the hajj — the pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able to do so.

The accident comes just over a week before this year’s hajj, which is expected to start around Sept. 21 and last four to five days. It will draw between 2 to 3 million Muslims from around the world for a series of rites in Mecca and surrounding areas that are believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

Officials have not yet removed the crane. An Associated Press journalist saw the Liebherr crane on Sunday, its base tipped forward and its superstructure leaning into the mosque where it struck. The Liebherr Group, a large equipment manufacturer, makes many of its cranes at a plant in Biberach an der Riss, Germany, and has its global headquarters in Switzerland.

Liebherr spokesman Kristian Kueppers said in an email to The Associated Press that the company is doing everything in its power “to help bring the accident investigation to a speedy and logical conclusion.” The company said it had issued clear instructions on how the crane was to be installed and secured to protect it from winds. The company also expressed its deep sympathy for the families of the victims.

Over the years, the Grand Mosque has undergone several expansions to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, but in the last decade, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished to make way for hotels, causing an outcry among some Muslims. Saudi officials say the overhaul is needed as the number of pilgrims during hajj is projected to reach 7 million by 2040.

The current $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. The Grand Mosque is now surrounded by dozens of cranes, part of the massive construction effort headed by the Saudi Binladin Group. The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.

The Binladin Group has not released any statements to the press about the crane collapse and its representatives have not been made available for comment. The company’s chairman or a top representative is likely a member of the investigating committee, according to several Saudis familiar with the process.

On Sunday, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais, also visited the injured. Flanked by a team of assistants, he gave patients bags that included a copy of the Quran, a vial of traditional Arab fragrance called oud, and bottles of water from the sacred underground Zamzam well in Mecca believed to have healing properties.

He told patients that that there was great reward for them in being at the Kaaba, just before the hajj. “This is God’s will,” he told each patient as he passed by their bed. “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, may God protect him, is very concerned with your well-being.”

Dr. Salem Bajuifer, medical director at Al-Noor,, said his team received around 120 patients, many of them with serious injuries requiring amputations. The injured at the hospital come from a range of countries, including Germany, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

The Indian mission in Saudi Arabia says two of its citizens were killed. The Saudi government has not released details about the nationalities or ages of the dead since many are still being identified. Several children are believed to have died.

“It is a big trauma,” Bajuifer said when asked about the emotional toll on patients and their relatives. “Of course everybody is traumatized, not only the patients. Even we are traumatized.” Karam, whose husband has been in and out of surgery for his leg, says she’s too traumatized to think about what comes next. She fled barrel bombs and the civil war in Syria to live in Turkey, never expecting to be so close to death at Islam’s most sacred site.

“I am still feeling terrified,” she said, as she broke into tears.

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

September 12, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A towering construction crane toppled over on Friday during a violent rainstorm in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, crashing into the Grand Mosque and killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Images posted by social media users showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to numerous bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors. Saudi Arabia’s civil defense authority provided a series of rising casualty numbers on its official Twitter account as ambulances whisked the wounded to area hospitals. As of early Saturday, it said those injured in the disaster numbered 238.

A photo released by the authority showed police and workers in hardhats inspecting a pile of collapsed concrete slabs inside a part of the sprawling, ornately decorated mosque. Another showed the base of the toppled red-and-white crane tilted upward at a sharp angle.

Images aired on Saudi state television showed the crane’s metal boom smashed through what appeared to be the roof of the mosque. Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the accident happened late Friday afternoon during a severe storm carrying strong winds and heavy rain.

Authorities did not provide details on the victims’ nationalities, but it was likely that the tragedy will touch several countries. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the U.S. stands with Saudi Arabia and “all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam’s holiest sites.”

The Grand Mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba within it draw Muslims of all types from around the world throughout the year, though numbers increase significantly in the run-up to the hajj. The mosque is Islam’s holiest site to which Muslims face in daily prayers and a central site among the hajj rituals.

Performing the pilgrimage once during one’s lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to start around Sept. 22. Al-Mansouri said the crane, which was being used in construction work at the mosque, struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.

Pan-satellite Al-Jazeera Television broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appear to be pools of blood.

Another video, on a Twitter posting, captured the apparent moment of the red-and-white crane’s collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion. The governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, quickly called for the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of the accident. He directed all appropriate authorities to provide support for all of those injured, according to a statement from Mecca principality public affairs head Sultan al-Dosari that was carried on SPA.

Other Saudi officials could not immediately be reached or referred queries to the civil defense statements. Several cranes surround the mosque to support an ongoing expansion and other construction work that has transformed the area around the sanctuary.

Steep hills and low-rise traditional buildings that once surrounded the mosque have in recent years given way to shopping malls and luxury hotels — among them the world’s third-tallest building, a giant clock tower that is the centerpiece of the Abraj al-Bait complex.

The construction giant Saudi Binladin Group is leading the mosque expansion and also built the Abraj al-Bait project. The Binladin family has been close to the ruling Al Saud family for decades and oversees major building projects around the country. The Binladen family disowned one of its many members, late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear who owned the crane that collapsed. During the week of the hajj, Muslims converge on Mecca to perform a series of rituals, including the circling of the cube-shaped Kaaba, praying and holding vigil at Mount Arafat and perform the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles at the three pillars in Mina.

Prayers on and around the mount are a climactic emotional and spiritual moment in the hajj. The faithful believe that on that day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins are forgiven.

All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear seamless terry white cloths to symbolize equality before God during the hajj. Women cover their hair and wear long loose clothing, forgoing makeup and other adornments to help them detach from worldly pleasures and outward appearances.

It was on Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.

While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The millions of pilgrims who visit the country’s holy sites each year pose a considerable security and logistical challenge for the Saudi government, and large-scale deadly accidents have occurred on a number of occasions in years past.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. A crush of pilgrims two years earlier left 244 dead. The worst hajj-related tragedy was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Katarina Kratovac in Cairo contributed to this report.