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At least 44 reported killed in stampede at Israeli religious festival

A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured some 150 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.

The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather each year to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there.

Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people, and videos posted on social media showed scores of black-clad ultra-Orthodox men walking through narrow passages to the site.

The stampede happened after midnight and its cause was not immediately clear.

Witnesses said a row of people had tripped on some stairs, causing other people to fall and sparking the stampede.

“Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told Army radio. He described a terrifying sight as the first row of people fell down.

He said he was in the next row of people that tripped.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.

The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist.

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

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

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