Saudi Arabia has mobilised a force of 100 000 men to protect an estimated two million Muslim pilgrims flocking to Mecca for the annual hajj, amid fears of attack or deadly stampedes.
For the first time, the authorities have brought in sophisticated United States-built helicopters to guard against possible attack during the world’s largest pilgrimage, which has often been blighted by tragedy.
About two million Muslims are expected join the annual ritual, which this year begins on Saturday, including several hundred thousand Saudis and residents of the kingdom and at least 1,6-million from other countries.
“[Saudi forces] are ready to cope with their responsibilities,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz said after inspecting the security forces that will supervise the pilgrimage.
US-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters fitted with sophisticated technology such as night-vision binoculars are available to security forces for the first time amid the spectre of attacks that have haunted Saudi Arabia in recent years.
“Terrorism is not finished. It is still going,” Prince Nayef told journalists. Asked about the risk of an attack during the pilgrimage, he said: “We have no information but we must be ready so as not to be caught unawares.”
The oil powerhouse has faced a string of attacks against Western targets and oil facilities since May 2003 and hundreds of suspected Islamist extremists or sympathisers have been arrested.
During the 2007 hajj, the Saudi authorities announced the arrest of a group linked to the al-Qaeda network, which planned to carry out an attack, without, they said, targeting Mecca or the pilgrims themselves.
But it is the vast tide of pilgrims massing in relatively small spaces that has been the source of the bloodiest disasters, with stampedes causing the deaths of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1 426 in 1990.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which the Koran says all Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives, if they are capable. — AFP