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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 07:42 GMT
Saudi vows to deter Hajj violence
The Hajj
Millions attend the annual pilgrimage
Saudi Arabia has boosted its security deployments before about two million Muslim pilgrims start the annual Hajj this weekend.

Officials have vowed to use "an iron fist" against any terrorist group trying to disrupt the pilgrimage.

"Our precautionary security measures for Hajj this year are of the highest order

Interior Minister
Prince Nayef
Special forces soldiers wearing black balaclavas joined 3,000 troops and police on parade for a show of strength outside Mecca.

Armoured cars and water cannon were also deployed at the display near Mount Arafat to show Saudi Arabia's readiness to maintain law and order.

Regional threat

Every year about two million Muslims converge on Mecca and Medina - the two holiest places in Islam - to take part in the five-day pilgrimage.

The Hajj has not seen a major protest since 1987 when Shia Muslims, mostly from Iran, started a riot with Saudi Arabian police during an anti-US protest in which 402 people were killed.

Saudi riot police
Police have been checking pilgrims entering holy sites
However, this year's gathering is taking place amid escalating tensions over the prospect of a US-led military attack on Iraq.

And there are concerns that, as a long-time ally of the US, Saudi Arabia could become the target of Islamist violence.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef said: "Our precautionary security measures for Hajj this year are of the highest order.

"Terrorist organisations seeking to tamper with our security during the Hajj will be dealt an iron fist," he added.

"It is normal to take security measures and it is normal to prepare for the worst.

"Hajj remains the priority for the pilgrims and I hope nothing will happen," Prince Nayef said after watching the parade outside Mecca.

In Mohammed's footsteps

Helicopters have been hovering over sacred sites and pilgrims have been checked at police roadblocks at entrances.

The BBC's Russell Trott says a tent city has been built at Mecca to house the pilgrims.

Officials say about 1.2 million pilgrims from around the world are expected to join about one million residents from the kingdom for the Hajj.

During the event - one of the five pillars of Islam - pilgrims follow the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed.

The annual rite culminates on 10 February with the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Khalil Fahmi
"Around a million pilgrims surrounding the Ka'aba"
See also:

15 Feb 02 | Middle East
10 Feb 00 | Middle East
05 Mar 01 | Middle East
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