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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 16:53 GMT
Eye-scanners installed for Hajj security
Hajj pilgrims at the Grand Mosque, Mecca
Some 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to make the Hajj
Saudi Arabia has installed eye-scanning and finger-printing devices at a key airport, in a drive to tighten security amid terrorism fears at this month's annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Individuals selected randomly and considered "suspicious" among the hundreds of thousands of Muslims arriving for the event will be taken aside to have their irises digitally scanned.

Hajj pilgrims in Mecca
Able-bodied Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage
The machines have been installed in the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, a Saudi official, speaking anonymously, told the Associated Press.

The US has publicly praised Saudi Arabia for its support in the US-led "war on terror", but there are fears that the huge Muslim gathering could be a recruiting ground for those in sympathy with al-Qaeda.

"Those suspected of being involved in terrorism activities will have their names listed at all entry ports," said Saudi official Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim bin Saleh al-Hamdan.

One of Osama Bin Laden's stated objections is to the 5,000 US troops that share Saudi soil with some of the holiest sites of Islam.

And American investigators have said that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 11 September attacks were Saudis, as were - according to the Saudi Government - 100 of the first 158 prisoners taken to Guantanamo Bay.

Tracking pilgrims

The hi-tech devices use a technique known as biometrics - recording individuals' unique physical features - to gather data which will enable the Saudi authorities to identify and track individual pilgrims.

Jeddah airport
The airport has a specially dedicated Hajj Terminal
The official said that the number of intelligence officers had been significantly increased for this year's annual pilgrimage.

Colonel al-Hamdan also said machines for detecting false passports had been installed.

These, together with the biometrics technology, will help the Saudis cut down immigration by visitors who do not return home after the pilgrimage.

Trip of a lifetime

Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is required to make the Hajj at least once in a lifetime.

An estimated 2.5 million people are expected to attend this year's rituals.

About 80% of those arriving from outside Saudi Arabia will travel through the King Abdul Aziz airport, which has a specially dedicated Hajj Terminal.

The government spends an estimated $1bn hosting the annual event and has an entire ministry responsible for its smooth running.

The Ministry of Pilgrimage estimates that 120,000 Pakistanis, 110,000 Indians and 92,000 Iranians will make this year's Hajj, which reaches its climax on 21 February with a visit to Mount Arafat.

See also:

07 Feb 02 | South Asia
Stranded pilgrims fly out of Dhaka
29 Jan 02 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia 'still friends' with US
19 Jan 02 | South Asia
Saudi Arabia pledges Afghan aid package
19 Dec 01 | Middle East
Riyadh: Bin Laden video is 'genuine'
06 Mar 01 | Middle East
Lessons from Hajj deaths
30 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
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