MECCA, Nov 24 (AFP) - An estimated 2.5 million Muslims have converged on Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage, as workers toil round the clock to complete construction projects designed to avoid deadly stampedes.
This year's hajj is also taking place amid fears of the spread of swine flu as pilgrims flooded into the kingdom from around the globe.
Four have already died from the A(H1N1) virus, the authorities said, but on Tuesday the health ministry played down the swine flu risk to the hajj.
"There is no risk of the illness spreading as we are well-prepared and have taken the necessary measures" to prevent an outbreak, ministry spokesman Dr Khaled Marghlani told a news conference.
The official SPA news agency quoted senior health ministry official Ziad Mimesh as saying: "The ministry is ready to take care of any case (of swine flu) among pilgrims during the hajj."
All of this year's pilgrims were due in the holy city by late Tuesday in time to begin the hajj rites on Wednesday, day one of the six-day season.
The rites begin with the "tawaf," the circling seven times of the cubic Kaaba building in the centre of the Grand Mosque, in whose direction all Muslims around the world pray.
Pilgrims then proceed to Mina to spend the night before climbing Mount Arafat on Thursday.
The Grand Mosque can hold more than one million people, but the Saudi hajj authorities have been working to boost its capacity to cope with the steadily rising number of pilgrims.
Work is under way to double the mosque's capacity by adding another 300,000 square metres, according to a hajj official, after King Abdullah agreed two years ago that the northern mosque's esplanades can be expanded.
"We have worked round the clock to complete the expansion. Thanks to God, we have completed the main phase, which included demolishing houses and buildings at the northern end," said Abdulghani, a technician working on the site.
"Now the area is ready to install the sunshades," he added.
Hundreds of bulldozers, cranes and lorries were still operating up until Tuesday on the expansion work, but the new area will not be ready before next year's hajj.
Other expansion projects have been completed in time, including widening the neighbouring footpath between the Safa and Marwah hills in Mecca that has been turned into a four-level path, allowing a faster flow of pilgrims.
The hajj has been the scene of several tragic accidents caused by surging crowds.
In 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat bridge in Mina, east of Mecca, on the last day of the ritual of the stoning of the devil.
It was the worst accident since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede inside a tunnel at Mina.
In an attempt to avoid such tragedies, the authorities built a five-level bridge, in addition to two tunnels in the Jamarat area.
More than 100,000 security personnel have been deployed to secure the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina, in addition to 20,000 medical staff.
The Jamarat bridge is also being monitoring by 600 CCTV cameras, while the Grand Mosque and its surroundings are watched by 1,852 cameras.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz warned on Sunday that he hoped not to have to "resort to force" to maintain security during the hajj, in a reference to fears that Iranian pilgrims may stage demonstrations.
The run-up to this year's hajj has been marked by a war of words between Tehran and Riyadh over Iranian allegations that the Saudis, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, mistreat the predominantly Shiite hajj pilgrims from Iran.
In 1987, Saudi police attempts to stifle an annual anti-US protest by Iranian pilgrims led to a riot in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians. (By Adel Zaanoun/ AFP)