Two million Muslims massed in the holy Saudi city of Mina on Wednesday for the symbolic stoning of the devil, one of the high points of the annual hajj. Amid tight security, with helicopters hovering overhead and a fleet of ambulances standing by, the human tide converged on the area for the stoning of pillars which will continue on Thursday and Friday.
The crush as pilgrims seek to ensure their stones hit Satan has led to hundreds of deaths in the past, including 345 during January last year. A similar tragedy in 2004 saw 251 people trampled to death.
The Saudi Gazette newspaper said 10,000 troops had been deployed in Mina to beef up security and control pedestrian traffic on Jamarat Bridge, from where many throw their stones. Saudi authorities have constructed a third level on to the bridge complex to ease the pressure.
In another change after the deaths of the last hajj, the three "Jamarat" pillars have been extended, each of them effectively being turned into a large wall. This has made them an easier target and lessened the need for pilgrims to push to get closer.
According to tradition, Mina is the place where Satan appeared first to Abraham, to his son Ishmael, and to Ishmael's mother Hagar.
After the stoning, the pilgrims celebrate Eid al-Adha and sacrifice sheep or goat, cows and camels.
The Saudi government prefers hajjis to buy coupons instead of directly buying and sacrificing a beast, to avoid meat being wasted. Sheep sacrificed through coupon purchase are frozen and then distributed among the needy in the Islamic world, AFP reported. This year the coupons cost around 105 dollars each. Last year, according to official figures coupons worth more than 74 million dollars were sold.
"In total, 2,454,325 pilgrims, including 1,707,814 from outside the kingdom, are performing the pilgrimage this year," said the Saudi news agency SPA, quoting official figures. Earlier, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz said the pilgrims had come to Saudi Arabia from 181 different states, with their number increasing three percent on last year.
Among this year's pilgrims was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, invited by Saudi King Abdullah to become the first president of the Islamic republic to take part.
This year's hajj ends on Friday.