Friday, December 14, 2007

Saudis prepare for 1.5 million hajj pilgrim influx

JEDDA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Officials on Friday put final touches to preparations to try to ensure the safety of 1.5 million foreign pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim hajj in Mecca.

A total of 11,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics will be on hand to provide medical care with 4,200 beds at 21 hospitals and 145 health centres in the holy sites of Mecca, Mina and Arafat, local media reported.

According to the official news agency SPA, 85 ambulances have also been mobilised for the occasion and health awareness and alerts will be issued in case of any epidemic outbreaks.

Al-Jazeera news reported that the health ministry in the desert kingdom had been spraying pesticides on pilgrims' tents and accommodation blocks to protect against mosquitoes.

The precautions and security measures are to try to prevent a repeat of the high death tolls that have often characterised past pilgrimages, such as that in 2006 when 364 people were killed in a stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat Bridge, where Muslims cast stones at a pillar representing Satan.

The stoning ritual has created some of the worst scenes of panic during the hajj, including that in 2004 when 251 pilgrims died, and in 1994 when 270 perished in a stampede.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who heads the hajj supreme committee, will inspect preparations on Saturday including the third phase of the construction of the Jamarat Bridge, SPA said.

The agency quoted the hajj central commission as saying that 1,467,515 people had by Wednesday already arrived in Saudi Arabia ahead of the celebrations which begin on Monday.

The annual pilgrimage, which attracts hundreds of thousands of Saudi faithful as well as foreign residents in the kingdom, begins on the eighth day of the month of Dhi al-Hajja under the lunar calendar.

The high point of the hajj, when pilgrims converge on Mount Arafat, will take place on Tuesday, and Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice marking the end of the pilgrimage, will be celebrated the next day.

All Muslims are required to make the hajj to Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.

Pilgrims sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, for Eid al-Adha as part of the rituals.

"Usually we get around 2 million sheep, goats and cows for the hajj season. The work is ongoing," Mohammad Jameel, an official in the storage terminal department at the Jedda Islamic Port, told AFP.

"The livestock is shipped from Somalia, Djibouti, Australia and New Zealand," he said, adding that the ships each carry around 120,000 sheep or goats.

Ashargh al-Awsat newspaper quoted Saudi Health Minister Dr. Hamad bin Abdullah al-Mane saying a case of bird flu (H5N1) had been detected at a chicken farm near Riyadh but added, "we have taken all the needed precautions."

Nearly 2.4 million people flocked to Saudi Arabia to perform the last hajj, including more than 1.6 million from outside the kingdom.

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