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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Nearly 2 million pilgrims from 168 countries begin Hajj 

More than 1.64 million pilgrims arrived in the kingdom by air, 88,855 by land and 14827 by sea, according to official statistics cited by the Saudi Press Agency on Wednesday

Pilgrims gather in Mecca early on August 30, 2017 before heading to Mina for the start of Hajj. Karim Sahib / AFP
Pilgrims gather in Mecca early on August 30, 2017 before heading to Mina for the start of Hajj. Karim Sahib / AFP

The National Nearly 2 million pilgrims from nearly every country in the world began Hajj on Wednesday, donning traditional white garments and heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca in an itinerary retracing the route that Prophet Mohammed took 14 centuries ago.

Saudi Arabia's immigration department said more than 1.75 million pilgrims of 168 different nationalities had arrived in the kingdom to perform the annual pilgrimage.

More than 1.64 million pilgrims had arrived by air, 88,855 by land and 14827 by sea, according to official statistics cited by the Saudi Press Agency on Wednesday.

Male pilgrims totalled 940,369, making up 54 per cent of those arriving, while females totalled 811,645, making up 46 per cent.

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The five-day ritual is a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

On Wednesday, some pilgrims prayed at the Grand Mosque before heading to the Mina area or towards Mount Arafat, east of Mecca, where the Prophet is believed to have delivered his final sermon to followers.

They walked or took buses, with traffic police using loudspeakers to try to direct crowds speaking a medley of languages. They were dressed in simple white robes, marking a state of ihram (ritual purity).

Moroccan pilgrim Rida Al Belaqili, waiting to board a bus to Arafat, struggled to find words to describe his feelings.

"We are meeting people from every country and every nationality. There is a sort of unity," he told Reuters. "I hope this will recharge Muslims' faith and spirituality. I ask God to grant me and all Muslims forgiveness."

He was performing Hajj with his wife, Latifa Al Omari, for the second time.

"Hajj is not a hardship. This joy and happiness makes you forget everything," she said.

All the pilgrims will arrive by Thursday morning at Mount Arafat, about 15 kilometres east of Mecca.

Eid Al Adha begins on Friday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.

The world's largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen deadly stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond.

A crush in 2015 killed several hundred pilgrims, with Riyadh putting the toll at nearly 800. Iran says more than 400 of its nationals died.

Saudi Arabia has also been hit by ISIL bombings in the past two years.

Authorities say they have taken all necessary precautions, with more than 100,000 members of the security forces and 30,000 health workers on hand to maintain safety and provide first aid.

On Tuesday, Saudi interior ministry spokesman Mansour Turki said no specific militant plots had been detected, but noted that the security services had dismantled a number of militant cells in Mecca and Medina over the past few years.

"From our expertise and experience with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, we know that their members do not disappear just because the organisation is defeated," he told Reuters.

"So we do not overlook the reality of such potential threats and we take all necessary preventive measures."

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