45 dead in stampede at a religious festival in Israel

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Forty five people have died in a stampede at Mount Meron in Israel, where they had gathered for Lag BaOmer, a festival important for the ultra-Orthodox community.

Authorities say 100,000 people were present and the stampede erupted in the early hours as people were leaving through a narrow tunnel.

It is reported that people started slipping on a ramp, others tripped and panic set in.

The crowds were Orthodox men and boys who were caught in the tragedy with youngsters trampled underfoot and unable to be dragged free because of the weight of bodies above them.

Dozens were taken to hospital. 40 people are unaccounted for. Many of the dead were buried before the Sabbath set in. World leaders sent their condolences for one of the worst civilian disasters in Israel.

Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration, breaking a season when days are counted following Passover. Parties with dancing and food are accompanied by bonfires in a festival associated with fire and light.

It has become known as the date of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried at Mount Meron.

On this day, he is said to have revealed the deepest secrets of the Torah (the first five law books of the Bible), as bright light illuminated the room and fire surrounded the house.

He is widely regarded as the greatest teacher of the Torah in his generation. He is also said to have written the Zohar, a text of Jewish mysticism, though this is disputed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that Sunday will be a day of national mourning. President Reuven Rivlin lit 45 candles in honour of the dead.

It was the first religious gathering to be held legally since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

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