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30 Jan 2004 08:10
Five Saudi security agents were killed in a shoot-out with suspected terrorists in the Saudi capital as nearly two-million Muslims from around the world began the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca amid heightened security after a year of terror attacks in the kingdom.
Bombings killed 51 people at housing compounds for foreigners in 2003 and Saudi and US officials blamed the al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile.
Suspected terrorists exchanged fire with Saudi security forces raiding a house in Riyadh on Thursday, and the Interior Ministry said five Saudi agents and the father of a suspect were killed. Several suspects were detained.
But in Mecca, 800km to the west, pilgrims said they were too overwhelmed by the spiritual experience of the hajj to be worried about terrorism.
“The moment you arrive here, all you feel is pure tranquility,” said Umm Usama, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Tulkarem.
As to the chance of a terrorist attack, Umm Usama simply shrugged, pointed to the sky, and said: “We depend on Him”.
A Libyan pilgrim, Bakr Salem, said Mecca was sacrosanct.
“And even if anything happened, nothing is better than dying in God’s house as a martyr.”
Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters this week that if anybody did disrupt the hajj, “we are totally prepared to deal with it firmly.”
Thousands of troops stood watch on Thursday as the pilgrims—men dressed in identical seamless white garb and women covered except for their hands and faces—circled the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, in the first ritual of the pilgrimage.
The Kaaba is a large cube structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers. Muslims consider the Kaaba as the house of God and believe it was built by Ibrahim and his son Ismail.
Iraqi pilgrim Saadi Saber said the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime constituted a new beginning for him.
“This is the first time we come here after the fall of Saddam’s regime and it feels so different—we are so free,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of terrorism from the former regime, and we’ve suffered in wars. We do not fear terrorism any more,” he said.
“The real terroriser has gone.”
Qassem Saleh, an Indonesian businessman, said the perpetrators of terrorist attacks are not true Muslims.
“It is not for religious reasons that they do what they do, they are after political gains,” he said, “but we are not here to be involved in politics, we are here to perform a religious duty at the heart of Islam”.
Authorities were bracing for heavy showers in Mecca over the next few days that are likely to turn Mina—a huge tent city that only comes alive during the pilgrimage—into a muddy, slippery camp. There were also concerns over power outages and rock slides from surrounding mountains.
Weather reports predicted clouds and rain beginning on Friday.
Saudi authorities, however, said they were fully prepared, with more than 2 000 rescue vehicles and 118 boats at their disposal, according to Lieutenant General Saad al-Tuweijry, head of the Civil Defence force.
To ease drainage, the municipality has widened the water passages in the mountains surrounding the area. They have also worked to stop huge rocks from rolling down the mountain side.
Thirty hospitals and several health centers have provided more than 150 ambulances and 4 000 beds. More than $16,5-million was spent on new health projects at this year’s hajj.
After the visit to the Grand Mosque, which can accommodate 460 000 visitors, the pilgrims head to Mina, where some 44 000 white, fireproof tents have been set up at a cost of $640-million.
The hajj has been marred by tragedies in the past. In 1997, a fire aided by high winds killed more than 340 people and injured 1 500 others.
The tent city can host up to three million pilgrims. About 1,3-million had arrived from outside the kingdom by Thursday, and they were expected to be joined by half a million from Saudi Arabia.
The hajj peaks on Saturday with prayers at Mount Arafat, a hill 20km southwest of Mecca. The time spent at Mount Arafat is symbolises Judgment Day, when Islam says people will stand before God and answer for their deeds. - Sapa-AP
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