1.7 million Muslims flock to Mina at start of hajj
1.7 million Muslim faithful on Friday poured into Mina, an arid valley near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage.india Updated: Jan 31, 2004 21:00 IST
Some 1.7 million Muslim faithful on Friday poured into Mina, an arid valley near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
"Here I am, Allah, answering your call," the pilgrims chanted in chorus as the massive crowd moved on foot or by bus along the road linking Mecca to Mina, which has been transformed into a vast encampment of fireproof tents.
The faithful spent the day here in prayer and meditation. Hundreds of thousands attended the main weekly prayers in Mecca's Grand Mosque before moving on to Mina, causing huge traffic jams.
Some climbed atop buses or traveled in trucks. Scores of policemen directed the vehicles as they inched forward bumper to bumper, but no major incident was reported by late afternoon.
"Everything is proceeding very well," a police officer told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Thousands of pilgrims set up makeshift canvas shelters on the hills surrounding Mina to shield them from the sun during the day and from the cold at night.
In keeping with tradition, the men were clad in a two-piece seamless white cloth, while the women were fully covered except for the hands and face.
At least 14,200 buses, with a capacity of 673,000 seats, were mobilised to transport the pilgrims, and 1,039 surveillance cameras installed at main roads around the holy sites.
The journey to Mina took place amid tight security measures imposed by the Saudi authorities, who have warned that they will not tolerate any attempt to undermine security during the hajj.
In early November, authorities said they had foiled a plot to attack pilgrims gathered in Mecca during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and shot dead two 'terrorists'.
And five suspected terrorists preparing an attack and two security men were killed during raids by security forces in the holy city in mid-June.
Coinciding with this year's hajj, six Saudi security men and the father of a wanted militant were shot dead by unknown gunmen Thursday as they searched for arms and explosives in the militant's home in Riyadh, 700 kilometres (435 miles) from Mecca, after the militant was arrested.
The interior ministry said security forces in the capital subsequently arrested seven suspected members of a group planning a 'terror attack' and seized large amounts of arms and explosives.
Security forces have clashed repeatedly with suspected Islamist militants in recent months as they hunt for extremists linked to the Al-Qaeda network.
Saudi authorities last month released a list of 26 suspected militants alleged to have links with suicide bombings that killed 52 people in the Saudi capital last May and November.
The list, now down to 24 after one of the wanted suspects was killed in a clash with security forces and another surrendered to authorities, was published in a booklet posted in the hall of a Mecca hotel housing pilgrims from different countries.
Before dawn on Saturday, the faithful will move towards Mount Arafat, a revered place in Islam, for the culmination of the hajj, symbolising the Final Judgement at the scene of the Prophet Mohammed's last sermon 14 centuries ago.
The faithful will then return to Mina to sacrifice an animal, generally sheep, marking Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, which starts on Sunday. They will spend two more days in Mina to take part in a symbolic stoning of the devil.
The interior ministry said Friday that 1,419,706 pilgrims had come from abroad, 16,083 less than last year.
Hajj Minister Iyad Madani earlier said they were expected to be joined by some 250,000 pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia, in addition to faithful from among Mecca residents.
Ahead of the hajj, Saudi Arabia had said it expected two million-plus pilgrims to take part.
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is required of able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, if they have the financial means.
First Published: Jan 31, 2004 21:00 IST