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More than 1.2 million pilgrims arrive in Saudi ahead of hajj

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March 1, 2001 


MECCA-(AP) - Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world made their way toward the holy city of Mecca Wednesday ahead of the hajj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage.

To prepare for the pilgrims' arrival and their four-day stay in Mecca, Saudi Arabia has mobilized all its facilities, dispatching security forces, medical teams and guides.

Police set up roadblocks on the highway linking Mecca to the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, checking the visas of pilgrims and turning back those without the required hajj entry permit.

The pilgrims, many of them wearing surgical masks for protection from contagious diseases, prayed at the Grand Mosque, circled the cubic black stone called the Kaaba and recited from the Quran, Islam's holy book.

The streets of Mecca were bustling, with many pilgrims shopping and making final arrangements ahead of the hajj, which peaks on Sunday when pilgrims start gathering on Mount Arafat, 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Mecca.

They will spend the night there, the first ritual of the hajj. Muslims believe that Islam's Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon 14 centuries ago on Mount Arafat.

The other rituals of the hajj will be performed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Pilgrims will throw stones at two pillars outside Mecca that symbolize the devil and circle the Kaaba.

Saudi Arabia is expecting close to 2.5 million pilgrims this year. Last year, officials said 2.73 million people performed the hajj.

The hajj is required at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim who is financially and physically able to perform it.

As part of an annual tradition, Saudi King Fahd is hosting 2,500 pilgrims, 1,000 of them relatives of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli forces and the others from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

Also performing the hajj this year are Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir and Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Saudi authorities have set up more than 40,000 fireproof tents and plan to distribute 10 million water bottles free of charge.

The Saudi government does not announce the number of security forces it deploys in Mecca during the hajj, but it is believed to be in the tens of thousands.

Safety has been a key issue during the hajj due to the massive crowding.

In 1998, some 180 pilgrims died in a stampede while pilgrims were performing the "stoning the devil" ritual. A similar stampede in 1994 left 270 dead.

During the 1997 pilgrimage, fires driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city outside Mecca, trapping and killed more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500.

Along with the fireproof tents, authorities have increased the numbers of rescue vehicles and provided safer cooking stoves.

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