11/24/2009, 00.00
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Makkah: Hajj begins amid fears of violence and the A-H1N1 flu

Saudi authorities have deployed 20,000 medical staff and 100,000 security personnel for the event. Riyadh warns it will not tolerate protests or demonstrations. Four flu-related deaths have been recorded among pilgrims. Six 24-hour clinics have been set up in the Grand Mosque.
Makkah (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Greater Hajj begins tomorrow amid tight security and anti-flu initiatives. Saudi authorities have deployed some 20,000 medical staff and more than 100,000 security personnel as more than 2.5 million Muslim faithful prepare to descend upon the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

The Saudi government faces two challenges, namely the danger of the A-H1N1 flu virus and possible tensions between Sunnis and Shias, which in the past caused hundreds of deaths and injuries.

Local health authorities are on high alert; so far, 20 pilgrims have shown signs of the flu. On Saturday, four of them died; they had prior health problems like pulmonary infection and cancer. Another four remain in care, but and 12 were dismissed from hospital.

Over the past few weeks, Riyadh has urged other governments to restrict the pilgrimage to healthy adults between 18 and 65.

At the same, Saudi authorities deployed additional doctors. They have also provided more hospital beds and stockpiled 1.5 million units of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, the most widely used drug in the fight against the flu.

A Saudi doctor said that the authorities were hoping that at least 20 per cent of pilgrims would have been vaccinated before arriving. Still, six 24-hour health clinics are available within the Grand Mosque.

However, the flu is not the authorities’ only concern; possible violence is a swell. In recent weeks, the Saudi government called on Iran not to politicise Hajj after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for “demonstrations against the United States and Israel.”

Saudi Interior Minister Nayef Ben Abdel said he hoped there would be no need to use force to ensure pilgrims’ safety.

General Mansur al-Turki, the interior ministry official in charge of Hajj security, said he did not expect trouble, but warned that protests "are prohibited in the Hajj and we will not let them take place".

In the past, the greater pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites was marred by serious incidents resulting in hundreds of dead. In 1987, a police crackdown against an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration by Iranian pilgrims left 402 people dead. Tehran responded by boycotting Hajj for three years.

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See also
Tehran bans pilgrimage to Makkah because of the swine flu
Swine flu pushes authorities to warn pilgrims to be prudent about pilgrimage to Makkah
Swine flu a hoax by business interest, Saudi religious scholar says
Pope talks about the Middle East, the Holy Land and the food crisis with Bush
Risk of attacks and lodging problems for faithful heading to Mecca


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