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Muslim pilgrims stone the devil in Jamarat

JAMARAT, SAUDI ARABIA Muslims from around the world hurled pebbles at a giant wall in a symbolic stoning of the devil on Sunday, the start of the riskiest part of the annual haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, where hundreds died in a crush four years ago.

The kingdom stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina, and organising the world's largest annual Muslim gathering which retraces the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.

Tens of thousands of security forces and medics are deployed alongside modern technology including surveillance drones to maintain order.

Nearly two and a half million pilgrims, mostly from abroad, have arrived for the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

They are asked to follow carefully orchestrated schedules for each stage of haj, but with so many people, panic is a constant danger.

Under close supervision and clad in white robes signifying a state of purity, the faithful converged on Jamarat to perform the stoning ritual from a three-storey bridge erected to ease congestion after stampedes in previous years.

They will return to the bridge over the next two days for more stoning before returning to Mecca to pray at the Grand Mosque at the end of haj.

The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenue from worshippers' lodging, transport, fees and gifts.

The authorities aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. - REUTERS

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