Dozens injured in stampede at big Israeli religious festival

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The annual pilgrimage for the feast of Lag B'Omer is staged in Meron around the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century Talmudic sage. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster" and said he was "praying for the injured".

Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.

The injuries were the result of overcrowding and not caused by the collapse of any structure at the site, the spokesman, Zaki Heller said, rebutting initial reports that staging had collapsed.

Hundreds of worshipers refused to leave the site and clashed with police in an attempt to enter the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai after the incident, the report said.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station "masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created". But officials later said it appeared that the casualties had been asphyxiated or trampled in a stampede.

"I felt like I was about to die", he said.

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Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service, posted the updated toll on Twitter, adding "MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated".

That would match the death toll of a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country's history. No one imagined that this could happen here. "In one moment, we went from a happy event to an huge tragedy", he said.

Video from the scene showed dozens of ambulances lined up for patients. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.

It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted almost all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel's rapid Covid-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

The Lag B'Omer festival at the foot of Mount Meron is the largest event held in the country since the coronavirus pandemic began despite concerns about spreading the virus. Police have asked everyone at the site to evacuate.

Israel's military was brought in to support the rescue effort, police said, while authorities tried to evacuate the area.

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