Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

King Fahd orders Mecca changes

AFP , MINA, SAUDI ARABIA

Hajj pilgrims are funneled by police on Sunday in Mina, Saudi Arabia, as they try to reach the Jamarat Al Aqaba -- a symbol of the devil that is prominent in a rite in which the pilgrims throw stones.

PHOTO: EPA

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia ordered the holy places of Mecca and Medina to be modernized hours after 244 Muslims -- half of them Asians -- died during a ritual that regularly results in deadly stampedes at the hajj pilgrimage.

The 20-year project, announced by royal decree, would be drawn up by ministers and senior regime officials who would "gradually put forward proposals" and could call on expertise from abroad as well as within the kingdom, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

The 244 dead and a similar number injured were trampled or suffocated as a huge crush started Sunday when vast numbers of pilgrims surged forward to lob stones at pillars representing the devil.

The ritual involving up to 1.9 million white-robed pilgrims was due to continue in the valley of Mina, just outside Mecca, for the second day, starting around midday.

It promised to be a further high-risk exercise for the Saudi authorities who had nonetheless announced last month an "integrated crowd control strategy" to prevent new tragedies during the annual event.

Pilgrims were to be dispatched in groups for the rite at a huge two-tier bridge, limitations imposed on the numbers heading toward the area and special forces deployed immediately to disperse people in case of a stampede.

The faithful were also to be told to leave the area quickly after completing the ritual while arrangements had been made to rescue pilgrims who faint or become trapped due to overcrowding. The movement of pilgrims was also to be monitored via closed-circuit television.

Last year 14 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the first day of the same ritual and 35 in 2001, while the 1998 hajj saw 118 killed and more than 180 hurt at the pillars.

Asians bore the brunt of the latest disaster with 54 Indonesians and 36 Pakistanis among the dead, the Saudi interior ministry said.

"We believe that most of the dead are from among illegal pilgrims," Hajj Minister Madani said, referring to those who arrived earlier in the year to perform the minor umrah pilgrimage and stayed illegally, as well as local residents who never registered for the hajj.

He said 2,000 national guard members were moved to the area following the stampede to reinforce 10,000 police already on site.

Despite the stampede, which lasted nearly half an hour, the ritual resumed later Sunday and continued for two and a half hours.

To cries of "Allahu Akbar," pilgrims hurl seven small stones from behind a fence or from the overhead bridge every day for three days at each of the three 18m-high concrete pillars that symbolize Satan.

The pillars stand only 155m apart.

They are generally mobbed as the pilgrims try to get close despite the beefed-up security measures.

According to tradition, Satan appeared on the same site to the Prophet Abraham, his son Ismael and wife Hagar.

Each threw seven stones at the devil.

Pilgrims who were at the rite on Sunday gave varying accounts of what took place but all said they would not be deterred.

"I was there and saw 30 to 40 bodies on the ground. But I don't know if they were dead or unconscious," said one young Saudi who declined to give his name.

"What happened this morning did not stop the accomplishing of the hajj rituals. The pilgrims continued to rush in," added Waleed Faydullah, a 32-year-old Egyptian.

The first two days of the pilgrimage had passed without incident -- although authorities said they arrested in Riyadh on Thursday seven suspected members of a "terror group" planning an attack.

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