First Iran hajj dead return, nine days after stampede

TEHRAN - The first bodies of Iranians killed in a deadly stampede at the hajj arrived home from Saudi Arabia on Saturday, after a controversial nine-day delay and questions over the final death toll.

President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials laid white flowers on coffins at a sombre repatriation ceremony for the 104 pilgrims - among at least 464 Iranians who died in the September 24 crush.

Iranian officials have accused Saudi authorities of incompetence in their handling of safety at the hajj, further souring relations already strained by the civil war in Syria and conflict in Yemen.

"If it were proved that some (authorities) were guilty in this accident, we will not forgive," Rouhani said as the bodies emerged in red caskets from a cargo plane at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran.

The president was flanked by the heads of Iran's judiciary and parliament as well as the chief of staff of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office.

"Our language in this accident was one of brotherhood and respect and the language of diplomacy was used when necessary," said Rouhani. "If needed, the language of authority will also be used."

Iran has also been deeply critical of the slowness of the Saudi authorities in identifying the dead so that their bodies can be returned to their families.

"The slightest disrespect towards tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and Medina and not fulfilling their obligation to transfer holy bodies will have Iran's tough and fierce reaction," Khamenei warned on Wednesday.

He had previously demanded that Saudi Arabia apologise to the bereaved and to the world's Muslims.

Iran's IRNA news agency quoted Health Minister Hassan Hashemi as saying on Thursday that he and his Saudi counterpart Khaled al-Falih had agreed to "speed up the repatriation process".

Mismanagement and incompetence

Rouhani called for a "fact-finding commission" into the disaster that Iranian officials have blamed on "mismanagement and incompetence" by the Saudi authorities.

"All Islamic countries must learn why this tragedy happened," the Iranian president said.

Saudi authorities have yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of the 769 Muslim pilgrims they say died, but many countries have provided their own individual tolls.

Tallies of the dead from foreign officials and media from 24 countries put the dead at 1,036, well in excess of the Saudi figure.

With many more pilgrims still listed as missing, Iranian officials say the real death toll is between 2,000 and 4,000, and many of the dead have yet to be identified.

It took a week before Iran was able to confirm 464 of its nationals had died as officials spent days scouring Saudi hospitals for the missing without success.

It is the highest confirmed death toll among foreign nationalities by far. Egypt has 124 dead and 70 missing, and Indonesia has 91 dead.

While Iran has blamed the stampede on Saudi incompetence, official reaction elsewhere in the Muslim world has been more restrained, although survivors and bereaved families have criticised safety measures.