Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani said about the same number of pilgrims were injured in the strampede.

Speaking at a press conference, Madani said the stampede began at about 09:00am (0600 GM) and lasted for 27 minutes.

Madani said eight of those hurt were in a critical condition.

The stoning ritual was interrupted for two and a half hours before resuming at noon, he said.

Stampedes are always a threat during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which this year saw nearly two million Muslims flock to holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Illegal pilgrims

"We believe that most of the dead are from among illegal pilgrims," Madani said, referring to those who had come earlier in the year to perform Umrah (a minor pilgrimage) and stayed illegally, and local residents who never register for the hajj.

A Saudi pilgrim at the site of the stoning said he saw at least 30 people lying on the ground, but he was not sure if they were all dead.

Ali al-Awja, another Saudi pilgrim, said he saw "three or four people dead."
 
Police, who were deployed in large numbers, tried to keep the ceremony orderly with frequent warnings through loudspeakers, while a helicopter hovered over the scene.

Reinforcements
 

Thousands of policemen were deployed
to Mina before the Hajj

"In the area of Mina, 10,000 policemen were deployed before the Hajj," said Madani, adding that 2000 national guard members were deployed to the area after the stampede as reinforcements.

Madani said he could not yet provide the nationalities of those who perished.
 
However, he did say that in the past the year, 2.3 million people had travelled to the kingdom for Umrah, of which 12% stayed illegally to perform this year's Hajj.

Almost all of those who stayed on were from Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Indonesia, he said.

India's consul general in Mina, Sayyid Akbar al-Din, told the NDTV news channel two Indians were among the dead.

Last stage of Hajj

Pilgrims collect pebbles before 
proceeding for the stoning ritual  

Early on Sunday, nearly two million Muslims began casting pebbles at pillars representing the devil in the last stage of the Hajj, in a ritual which regularly causes fatal stampedes because of the large numbers involved.

Police deployed en masse tried to keep the ceremony orderly with frequent warnings through loudspeakers, while a helicopter hovered overhead.

The first two days of the pilgrimage passed without incident despite worries by the authorities of terror attacks.

Other deaths

However, Madani also said 272 other pilgrims had died since the start of the pilgrimage due to fatigue or illness, classifying their deaths as normal.
 
Saudi authorities also said they arrested seven suspected members of a "terror group" in Riyadh on Thursday, accusing them of planning an attack and seizing large amounts of arms and explosives.

Last year 14 pilgrims, including six women, were killed in a stampede during the first day of the stoning ritual.

Among other deadly incidents in recent years, 35 died in 2001, while 118 were killed and more than 180 hurt in 1998.

The worst toll of the pilgrimage was in July 1990, when 1426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina.