'Dozens of dead' in Israel pilgrimage accident: rescue services

Bodies lie on the ground in Meron after a stampede at a religious festival

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the stampede as "a awful disaster".

The disaster occurred at Mount Meron at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there.

The town is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world. Witnesses said a row of people had tripped on some stairs, causing other people to fall and sparking the stampede.

A spokesman for the Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue service, told AFP "there were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital".

According to a local media report citing witnesses, numerous injured are unconscious, and ambulances and helicopters are evacuating patients from Israel's largest crowd since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster", adding on Twitter: "We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties".

Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.

A field hospital was set up at the scene.

The army and emergency services deployed helicopters to evacuate the wounded.

Thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Israel's biggest Covid-era gathering
Israel stampede: Dozens killed in crush at religious festival

The New York Times reported that some estimated that about 100,000 people were at the location.

Shortly after the incident, police closed traffic into the area and began evacuating visitors from the site.

Meanwhile, the IDF, which sent its elite 669 rescue team to the site, said a roof had collapsed.

Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers' efforts to keep order at the site.

Eyewitness video shows worshippers pulling down barriers at a religious bonfire festival in northern Israel on Friday after a stampede at the base of Mount Meron.

United Hatzalah is the volunteer-based emergency medical services organisation. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel's rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.

President Reuven Rivlin also tweeted that he was following the reports from Meron and praying for the recovery of the injured.

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