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28 February 2024

Saudi vows safe haj

By Agencies




Saudi Arabia vowed to maintain the safety of over 2 million Muslims performing haj pilgrimage next week, citing new procedures at a bridge where hundreds have died before in stampedes.

Around 1.64 million people have arrived so far in the Mecca area from around the world in recent weeks, ahead of the gruelling five-day ritual which begins on Monday.

At least half a million will join from inside Saudi Arabia, though final numbers are not clear because of Muslims who slip into Mecca for haj without official permits.

"We will make every effort to ensure the security and safety of the guests of God," Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters late on Saturday at the plain of Arafat where pilgrims will spend the day on Tuesday.

He said there was no link between this year's haj and 208 men detained last month in the latest of a series of sweeps against suspected militants in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and home to Islam's holiest sites.

The haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion, has been marred in previous years by fires, hotel collapses and police clashes with protesters and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

The government is also wary of any militant actions. Al Qaeda-linked militants launched a campaign to destabilise the U.S.-allied monarchy in 2003. Saudi radicals opposed to the royal family seized control of the mosque for two weeks in 1979.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will attend the rites this year, raising the prospect of possible political activity by Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims.

Prince Nayef, speaking after a parade of some 50,000 security forces involved in protecting the haj, said no extra security procedures were in place because of the Iranian leader, whose country is locked in a diplomatic war with Washington.

The US, backed by Israel and Western countries, wants to stop Tehran from independently enriching uranium which it says could allow the Islamic Republic the ability to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no such ambitions.

Prince Nayef pointed to further work on a bridge in Mina where pilgrims stone pillars that mark the spot where Muslims believe the devil sought to prevent the prophet Ibrahim -- the biblical patriarch Abraham -- from heeding God's order.

"I am sure that the addition of another floor this year will ease the flow of pilgrims and the stoning ritual," he said.

In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death on the Jamarat Bridge, the worst haj tragedy in 16 years. (Reuters)