Hajj draws fewer pilgrims over health fears

Numbers down by more than 20 percent because of Saudi construction projects in Mecca and fears over MERS virus.

    Some two million Muslims have streamed into Mina Valley from the holy city of Mecca on the annual hajj pilgrimage, their numbers reduced over health fears and Saudi cuts.

    Authorities announced at noon on Sunday that all the pilgrims had reached Mina from nearby Mecca, following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed some 14 centuries ago.

    Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said there were 1,379,531 million pilgrims from outside the country, down 21 percent on last year's 1.75 million.

    Some 1.29 million had flown in from 188 countries, he said, without giving a figure for domestic pilgrims whose number is believed to have been halved.

    The kingdom cut by 20 percent the quotas for pilgrims from abroad over fears of infections from the MERS respiratory virus and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest place of worship.

    Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters Saturday no cases of the MERS virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia, have been detected so far among pilgrims.

    Unregistered pilgrims

    Authorities have boosted measures to curb unregistered pilgrims who try to infiltrate Mecca via desert roads.

    Security officials have said that as many as 31,000 Saudi and expatriate pilgrims were turned back for not carrying legal permits, and around 12,600 more were arrested.

    The pilgrims moved from Mecca to Mina by road, by train or on foot, men wearing the seamless two-piece white garment or ihram that rituals require, the women covered except for their faces and hands.

    In Mina, a small site but boasting 45,000 fire-resistant tents that can accommodate two million people, they pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat on Monday.

    A newly constructed electric railway transported around 400,000 of the pilgrims taking part in the world's largest annual gathering.

    Saudi Arabia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to ensure the safety of the pilgrims and has warned it will not tolerate demonstrations or disturbances.



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