Millions of Muslims flock to Mecca for Hajj

Saudi prepares as annual pilgrimage starts Wednesday

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An estimated 2.5 million Muslims have converged on Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, as workers toil round the clock to complete construction projects designed to avoid deadly stampedes.

All of this year's pilgrims were due in the holy city by the end of Tuesday to begin the Hajj rites on Wednesday, day one of the six-day pilgrimage.

The rites begin with the "tawaf," the circling seven times of the cubic Kaaba building in the center of the Grand Mosque, in whose direction all Muslims around the world pray.

Pilgrims then proceed to Mina to spend the night before climbing Mount Arafat on Thursday.

Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque can hold more than one million people, but the Saudi Hajj authorities have been working to boost its capacity to cope with the steadily rising number of pilgrims.

Work is under way to double the mosque's capacity by adding another 300,000 square meters, according to a Hajj official, after King Abdullah agreed two years ago that the northern mosque's esplanades can be expanded.

"We have worked round the clock to complete the expansion. Thanks to God, we have completed the main phase, which included demolishing houses and buildings at the northern end," said Abdulghani, a technician working on the site.

"Now the area is ready to install the sunshades," he added.

Hundreds of bulldozers, cranes and lorries were still operating up until Tuesday on the expansion work, but the new area will not be ready before next year's Hajj.

Other expansion projects have been completed in time, including widening the neighboring footpath between the Safa and Marwah hills in Mecca that has been turned into a four-level path, allowing a faster flow of pilgrims.

The Hajj has been the scene of several tragic accidents caused by surging crowds.

In 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat bridge in Mina, east of Mecca, on the last day of the ritual of the stoning of the devil.

It was the worst accident since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede inside a tunnel at Mina.

In an attempt to avoid such tragedies, the authorities built a five-level bridge, in addition to two tunnels in the Jamarat area.

We have worked round the clock to complete the expansion. Thanks to God, we have completed the main phase, which included demolishing houses and buildings at the northern end

Technician on site

Security

More than 100,000 security personnel have been deployed to secure the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina, in addition to 20,000 medical staff.

The Jamarat bridge is also being monitoring by 600 CCTV cameras, while the Grand Mosque and its surroundings are watched by 1,852 cameras.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz warned on Sunday that he hoped not to have to "resort to force" to maintain security during the Hajj, in a reference to fears that Iranian pilgrims may stage demonstrations.

In 1987, Saudi police attempts to stifle an annual anti-U.S. protest by Iranian pilgrims led to a riot in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.