Saudi police went on high alert on Friday as millions of Muslims rushed to complete one of the last rituals of the annual hajj pilgrimage, testing to the limits the new crowd control arrangements at an accident spot on the hajj itinerary.
Most of the more than 2 million pilgrims want to perform their third stoning of walls representing the devil and leave the Mina area east of the holy city of Mecca by sunset. If they miss the deadline, they will have to stay a third night in the area.
Police were more nervous than usual at the site of the Jamarat, the three stone "pillars" which the pilgrims pelt with stones, now converted into long elliptical concrete walls which can handle a much higher turnover of pilgrims.
Some 362 people were killed in January 2006 in a crush at the Jamarat, the worst hajj accident in 16 years.
Since then the Saudi authorities have completed more than half of a massive infrastructure project which will cost more than $1 billion. Pilgrims can now throw stones on three levels and a fourth is under construction.
Police on Friday imposed a strict one-way system, so that pilgrims who have completed the rite do not mix with those moving in the other direction. They also insisted that people leave their bags outside.
When pilgrims had thrown their seven pebbles, many shouting: "In the name of God, God is great," police urged them not to linger on the other side. But in practice the traffic was flowing freely and the chances of an accident looked slight at mid-morning.
Hajj experts said the influx could peak in the early afternoon because many pilgrims wanted to emulate the Prophet Mohammad, who threw his stones at that time.
End of five-day mission
Pilgrims, drawing to the end of their five-day mission, said they were delighted with the arrangements, and pleased to have completed their religious obligations with relative ease. Every Muslim who has the means should complete the hajj at least once in his or her lifetime.
"I feel very comforted, like a new person, and I hope that God will accept my pilgrimage," said Mahdy Abdel Halim, an Egyptian-born engineer from Connecticut doing hajj with three other family members.
"I feel spiritually at peace and everything went perfectly," said Abdel Karim al-Atawi, a Saudi soldier from the northern town of Tabouk.
Mohamed Serajeddin, an Indian engineer living in the east Saudi city of Dammam, said no other country in the world could organize such an event, because of the experience the Saudis now have in large crowd control measure.
He said he was doing the pilgrimage with his mother and father but he had to throw their stones for them on Friday because they had weak knees and could not face the long walk from the tented encampment.
After the third stoning, the only remaining rite is a final farewell visit to the site of the Kaaba, the ancient stone shrine which all Muslims face when they say their daily prayers.
This year more than 1.6 million pilgrims came from abroad.
Adding in pilgrims from inside the country, the total was well over 2 million, maybe as much as 3 million.