CAIRO, JULY 3 -- Saudi Arabia's interior minister confirmed tonight that 1,426 Moslem pilgrims died Monday when they were crushed or suffocated in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel outside the holy city of Mecca.
The official death toll, given by Interior Minister Prince Nayef on television, came nearly 36 hours after the incident. He did not say how many were injured in the human crush, which came at the end of the pilgrimage period.
"I express my own and the Saudi government's regret over this incident, which we consider accidental," Nayef said. Earlier, a Saudi official had called initial reports of 1,400 deaths "exaggerated."
This marked the third time in four years that deaths or violence have marred the annual pilgrimage, or haj, one of Islam's most sacred rites, and it is likely to embarrass Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Fahd, diplomats said.
"It has caught them by surprise. They are embarrassed in an area that they thought had everything under control," one envoy said.
The prestige of the Saudi leader, who bears the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," rests in large part on his roles as guardian of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina and guarantor of the pilgrims' safety and comfort. The pilgrimage to Mecca attracted 2 million Moslems this year.
Nayef, in the first official account of how the accident happened, said tonight that it began when seven people fell off a congested pedestrian bridge leading to the tunnel. The 500-yard tunnel, which is about 20 yards wide, connects the holy sites of Mecca with a vast tent city at Mina and nearby Mount Arafat, a key pilgrimage site.
"The fall of the seven spread terror, and the tremendous throngs of the pilgrims caused them all to tumble onto each other," Nayef, a brother of Fahd, said on state-run television.
"Old people first began falling under the feet in panic and terror," an aide to Nayef said, according to the Associated Press. "No one could go back or forth. . . . The pilgrims were falling on each other, the bodies piling on each other. . . . There was a mad rush and screaming."
Saudi television aired interviews with survivors, without naming them, AP reported from Mecca. One, who sounded Lebanese, said: "I was pushed and fell over about 20 corpses and others were still pushing in two directions and walking on me."
A Sudanese survivor said: "We were stuck inside, unable to move back or forth. Rescue men were throwing sacks of ice-cold water which we grabbed to overcome the heat and thirst. . . . There was no ventilation and the number of pilgrims in the tunnel was growing bigger by the second."
Nayef said an estimated 50,000 pilgrims were inside the tunnel at the time -- far beyond its capacity. He did not explain why so many were allowed in, nor did he mention widespread reports that the tunnel's ventilation system had failed, contributing to the suffocation.
Fahd on Monday called those who died "martyrs" and said the accident "was God's will, which is above everything. It was fate. Had they not died there, they would have died elsewhere and at the same predestined moment."
The official Saudi Press Agency quoted him also saying, however, that the pilgrims had failed to follow safety rules, "which were issued in good time ahead of the season."
Both Nayef and Fahd have sought to emphasize the accidental nature of the incident, apparently in an attempt to stifle anticipated criticism from a hostile Iran.
"No one can blame this country for this accident because its authorities and people provided all facilities to the pilgrims," Fahd said. "This was an accident and not intentional and I believe that any Moslem would share with this country in its sorrow."
Iran's Shiite Moslem leadership has challenged the Saudis' exclusive custody of the Islamic holy places in recent years, claiming that the Saudi officials of the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam are corrupt. The pilgrimage has been a source of bitter tension between the two as Iran has sought to turn the religious gathering into a political event.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry over the holy places turned violent in 1987, when 400 Shiite pilgrims, most of them Iranian, were killed in clashes with Saudi security forces during anti-Western demonstrations. After the incident, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Tehran and imposed quotas on pilgrims from each country.
Tehran, which objects to its quota, has refused to participate in haj for three years and recent high-level negotiations aimed at resolving the differences broke down.
Last year, one pilgrim was killed and 16 wounded when bombs exploded near Mecca. The Saudis beheaded 16 Kuwaiti Shiites, 10 of them Iranian-born, after convicting them of placing the bombs. They charged that the explosives were provided by Iranian officials.
Nayef did not give a breakdown of the deaths by nationality. Diplomats and journalists in Saudi Arabia reached by phone said that many of the dead are believed to be from Southeast Asian countries.
Yet, more than 24 hours after the accident, diplomats from Malaysia and Indonesia said they had confirmed only 15 deaths from among their nationals. Turkey's state news agency said that at least 12 Turks died and 74 were injured. Journalists were barred from hospitals and ordered not to interview survivors.
All Moslems have a religious duty to make the pilgrimage once in their lifetimes if they are financially and physically able. More affordable airline rates in recent years have brought rising numbers of pilgrims, presenting the Saudi government with huge problems of traffic control, lodging, food and water supply.
The pilgrimage is an arduous exercise because of the desert heat -- which has been well above 100 degrees in recent days -- and the long walks involved. Since many who come are elderly and already in frail health, scores of pilgrims die each year, diplomats said.
Moslems believe, however, that death at the holy shrines sends the pilgrim directly to paradise.
In Malaysia, Roslina Mat Taib, daughter of a victim, was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying her father had mentioned before going to Mecca "how wonderful it would be if he were to die among holy people in the sacred city." She said her family was grateful her father's wish had come true, especially because there would be thousands of pilgrims to pray for him and the others who died.