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Tel Aviv| A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, blackening the country’s largest Covid-era gathering.

The nighttime disaster struck as tens of thousands of pilgrims were gathered in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage at which bonfires are lit was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.

It had been “a tragic night,” Shimon Lavi, northern Israel’s police commander, told AFP, adding his officers did all they could to save lives, helping to ferry the injured to hospital.