December 4, 2008 / 3:39 PM / 11 years ago

Saudi Arabia hopes for safer haj after renovations

RIYADH (Reuters) - Over two million Muslim pilgrims arrive in the holy city of Mecca this week for the haj pilgrimage amid a vast security operation to avert any militant attacks or deadly stampedes.

The haj, one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion and duty for able-bodied Muslims, has been marred in the past by fires, hotel collapses and police clashes with protesters and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

The climax of the pilgrimage is on Sunday when worshippers spend the day gathered en masse on and around Mount Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca. The Eid al-Adha begins on Monday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.

Saudi authorities have made renovations over the past year to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge. In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death there, the worst haj tragedy in 16 years.

An extra level has been added to the bridge so pilgrims have four platforms from which to throw stones each day, according to the rites set by the Prophet Mohammad some 1,400 years ago.

Authorities will this year make clear appeals to pilgrims to throw their stones at any time of day, rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics have often insisted in the past.

An area inside the Grand Mosque where pilgrims must walk seven times between two rocky outcrops — retracing the steps of Biblical patriarch Abraham’s wife Hagar as she sought water for her son — has also been expanded to ease movement.

The government says it will stop Saudis and residents in the country taking part without official haj permits, another cause of overcrowding. Over 1.75 million haj visas have been granted to Muslims abroad; at least 500,000 locals receive permits too.

Performing haj outside the official haj tour groups, local residents often set up makeshift encampments by the roadside that complicate crowd control.

The government says it is also wary of militancy. Despite an al Qaeda campaign to destabilize Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006, the haj has never been targeted by al Qaeda militants.

Islamist militants rampaged through the Indian financial capital of Mumbai last month, killing 171 people, focusing world attention on al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan.

“We haven’t heard of anything or have any information but we must ready ourselves and assume something could be happen,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters on Wednesday after inspecting security and other special forces totaling 100,000 to ensure haj safety.

The government will be on the lookout to prevent political protests, which has led to deadly clashes between police and Iranian pilgrims in the past.

Some Palestinian pilgrims have been stranded in Gaza in recent days, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas-run authorities in Gaza and Saudi Arabia traded accusations over who was responsible. Prince Nayef said Saudi Arabia was prepared to receive Palestinian late arrivals.

Diplomats in Riyadh said mooted Afghan mediation talks were unlikely to take place in Mecca during haj. Saudi media said pilgrims would include ministers from Libya, whose relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained in recent years.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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