Dozens killed in stampede at big Israeli religious festival

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"A awful disaster of people who came to celebrate Lag B'Omer and were unfortunately crushed to death", said United Hatzalah vice president of operations Dov Maisel.

Dozens were killed on Friday in a stampede as tens of thousands of people gathered for a religious festival, emergency services said as a mass evacuation got under way.

Rescue workers had initially said that chaos erupted when a section of stadium seating collapsed but later revised that account to say the casualties had been caused by a stampede.

Medics and rescue workers attend to the Lag B'Omer event in Mount Meron, northern Israel, where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage.

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The annual pilgrimage for the feast of Lag BaOmer is staged in Meron around the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century Talmudic sage. It also said in a tweet that that 38 were critically inured and still at the location, six were in critical condition at a hospital, 18 were severely injured, two were moderately injured and 39 were lightly injured.

The Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue service, reported dozens of dead and said it would "fight for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated".

But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra officers to maintain order.

"In one of the complexes on the mountain, a number of the revellers were injured due to overcrowding", police said. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together in tight spaces.

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Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, completely covered in foil blankets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the incident as a "heavy disaster" and added: "We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties".

The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns late a year ago.

This year's gathering had been held in defiance of health officials who had worries that crowding could pose a COVID-19 risk.

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