24 crushed to death in Mali
Bamako - A stampede at a famed mosque in Mali's north-western desert city of Timbuktu crushed at least 24 people to death and left many more injured, officials and witnesses said on Friday.
"Sixteen bodies" were taken to a Timbuktu hospital and there were "55 injured", a hospital source told AFP after the crush at the Djinguereber mosque, one of Mali's most recognisable buildings.
A police official said "at least eight other bodies have not been transported to the morgue" at the hospital and would be buried as soon as possible, according to Muslim tradition.
Thousands of pilgrims come to Timbuktu for the prophet's birthday and an official said the accident appeared to have happened because of a bottleneck caused by renovation work on the 14th-century mosque, made largely from mud.
"People were circling the mosque, a ritual at each Mouloud [the observance of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed] and there was a huge crowd built up," one of the witnesses, Mohamed Bandjougou, said of the accident late on Thursday.
"I lost my sister. She was 16 and had gone to pray," said another resident, Ali Kounta.
Known as "the Great Mosque", Djinguereber is the oldest monument and largest mosque in Timbuktu.
An official at Timbuktu town hall told AFP that the mosque was undergoing renovations financed by the Aga Khan, head of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims.
Panic took over
"Because of these renovations, the passage on the north side of the mosque is closed off," the official said, asking not to be named. "On that side, to get through, the faithful found an improvised alleyway."
"But the alley couldn't take the number of people using it. So there was a stampede. Somebody shouted 'someone has died' and panic took over," the official said.
Two other officials said rescue services had "very quickly" helped the "many injured".
"We're in mourning. What happened is a real drama. We accept the will of God. He gives us life, he takes it away," said the mosque's imam, who gave his name as Asseyuti.
Timbuktu was a renowned intellectual and religious centre during the 15th and 16th centuries, helping to spread Islam throughout Africa.
The town and its monuments are Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Today the area is a desert, and while Timbuktu's name remains synonymous in Europe with the idea of an exotic faraway land, the town's historic buildings require constant renovation.
Religious gatherings of thousands of people can lead to deadly stampedes.
In 2006, at least 364 people were killed in a stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
A stampede at a Hindu temple in India's Rajasthan in 2008 killed 224 people, while two girls were killed and 40 injured at a stampede at a church-organised stadium event in Angola in 2009.