(Agencies) – Around two million Muslims will begin the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca Thursday amid increased safety measures aimed at preventing stampedes which each year claim scores of lives.
As of yesterday, 1,601,545 pilgrims have arrived in the Kingdom according to a report by the Mecca Central Hajj Committee. The report also noted that 219 pilgrims had died since arriving, generally those suffering from heart problems.
The official SPA news agency said Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, who also heads the Hajj Supreme Committee, had taken charge of security arrangements and was marshalling security and civil defense forces in the holy city.
Last year’s hajj was marred by a deadly stampede which killed 364 people in the arid valley of Mina near Mecca, during a ritual which involves casting stones at pillars representing Satan.
A similar stampede the previous year saw 251 people trampled to death during the stoning ceremony.
Both tragedies occurred at the entrance to the Jamarat bridge, from where pilgrims cast their stones at three pillars that are supposed to symbolize the powers of evil.
Immediately after last year’s stampede, religious leaders ordered the bridge, which created a dangerous bottleneck, dismantled and organizers this year are confident a similar tragedy will be averted.
Since many of those making the pilgrimage are elderly people who have saved up all their lives to be able to make the pilgrimage, hundreds die during the pilgrimage each year of natural causes.
The Hajj Supreme Committee said on Monday 219 pilgrims had died since arriving in the kingdom, generally those suffering from heart problems.
The only other incident was a short-circuit at a hotel housing Yemeni pilgrims in Mecca on Monday which caused a fire that was quickly put out, though some people were taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.
The health ministry said more than 9,600 medical personnel have been mobilized and 21 field hospitals set up at Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest places, for this year’s pilgrimage.
The hajj will begin on Thursday, with the faithful assembling at Mina.