Wed, Jan 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Security dominates this year's Mecca pilgrimage

PARADING POWER Authorities are keen to avoid a disaster similar to last year's, in which 251 people died after a stampede; and then there's terrorism to consider as well

AFP , MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA

Two elderly Indian pilgrims yesterday leave the great mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on their way to Mina, where an estimated 2 millions pilgrims were to spend last night before heading to Mount Arafat this morning for the main day of the annual pilgrimage.

PHOTO: AP

Saudi security forces trained specially for the annual hajj have been deployed to the kingdom's holy sites as some 1.8 million pilgrims converged on Mecca for the pilgrimage which started yesterday.

Security men "who have been trained and deployed in previous hajj seasons, in addition to those trained this year, will do the job," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said during a visit to Mecca.

Pictures of parading armed security men, armored vehicles, helicopters, fire brigades and ambulances were spread across local newspapers following the minister's inspection tour on Saturday of security procedures for the largest annual Muslim gathering.

Saudi Arabia has been battling a wave of violence by al-Qaeda-linked militants who have carried out a spate of attacks that have left more than 100 people dead, including many foreigners, since May 2003.

Nayef said security forces remained alert to combat terrorists across the kingdom, adding that "events speak for themselves," in reference to recent efforts by security authorities in combating Islamist militants.

Four wanted militants were killed on Jan. 9 in a shootout with security forces in a desert area, while 10 others, including two of the kingdom's most wanted men, were killed last month in two days of clashes in Riyadh.

The incidents occurred before and after two car bombings against security targets in Riyadh on Dec. 29, including the interior ministry itself.

"If something happens, or if there is an intention [to carry out terrorist attacks], it will be fought with conviction and all [our] strength," Nayef said.

An interior ministry spokesman earlier said that more than 50,000 security men had been deployed for the hajj season.

"More than 50,000 security men are taking part in the plan to secure the hajj," Brigadier Mansur al-Turki said, adding that 70 to 80 percent of their task is "primarily concerned with traffic control and ensuring the safety of pilgrims."

More than 10,000 officers are "to deal with any developments related to security matters," he said.

"We have dealt with terrorist attacks in the holy city of Mecca before" out of the hajj season, Turki said. "We only increase manpower during the hajj season to cope with the increase in the numbers of pilgrims."

The desert kingdom, home to two of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, last year received 1.4 million foreign pilgrims, in addition to some 473,000 from within the country.

Last year's hajj saw 251 pilgrims trampled or suffocated to death during a stampede as they vied to stone three pillars representing the devil in Mina, near Mecca.

All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam, at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.

For days pilgrims have been flooding into the birthplace of Mohammed to take part in the annual rituals, which will climax today on Mount Arafat. Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, will start tomorrow.

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