Hajj pilgrims begin rite which caused deadly crush

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Pilgrims heading to Mecca
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Pilgrims heading to Mecca
An aerial view of the tents of Muslim pilgrims is seen on the second day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, during the annual haj pilgrimage September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims shave their heads after they cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina on the second day of Eid al-Adha, near the holy city of Mecca September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims leave after they finished their prayers at Namira Mosque in Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A boy climbs Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim touches a rock on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat to receive blessings during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina on the first day of Eid al-Adha, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim holds a copy of the Koran as he prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim supplicates for God as he holds an umbrella on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
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JAMARAT, Saudi Arabia, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Nearly two million Muslim pilgrims performed a symbolic stoning of the devil on Monday, the riskiest part of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a year after the ritual's worst disaster in decades.

Saudi Arabia, which stakes its reputation on organizing the world's largest annual Muslim gathering, has deployed thousands of security forces, civil defense staff and volunteers as well as modern technology including drones and electronic bracelets to ensure a safe pilgrimage.

Last year, Saudi Arabia said that nearly 800 pilgrims were killed when two large groups of pilgrims arrived together at a crossroads in Mina, a few kilometers east of Mecca, on their way to performing the stoning ritual at Jamarat.

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Counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians.

Saudi authorities have said that some 1.86 million Muslims from around the world are performing the pilgrimage at Islam's holiest city, one of the main pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim is required to undertake at least once.

That is less than previous years, when up to 3 million pilgrims have attended. Authorities say disruption caused by expansion work and infrastructure projects in Mecca have combined with conflicts in the region to restrict the numbers.

Under close supervision from Saudi authorities, pilgrims in seamless white clothes, converged on Jamarat carrying the pebbles to perform the ritual from a three-story bridge erected to ease congestion.

In previous years, jostling to perform the stoning before returning to pray at the Grand Mosque accounted for many of the frequent stampedes and crushes that had afflicted hajj.

"This year, they have organized the situation better," said Abdel-Rahman Badr, an Egyptian pilgrim. "I feel happy to be conducting the hajj rituals," he added.

But another 60-year-old pilgrim, who identified himself as Mohammed, said "more work was needed, especially to ensure comfort for older pilgrims."

Look back at the aftermath of last year's stampede:

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Mecca, Saudi Arabia Hajj stampede
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Mecca, Saudi Arabia Hajj stampede
Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defense service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
GRAPHIC CONTENT Hajj pilgrims and Saudi emergency personnel gather near bodies at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
GRAPHIC CONTENT Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
GRAPHIC CONTENT Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi emergency personnel and Hajj pilgrims carry a wounded person at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Hajj pilgrims and Saudi emergency personnel carry a woman on a stretcher at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi ambulances arrive with pilgrims who were injured in a stampede at an emergency hospital in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. At least 310 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Muslim pilgrims and rescuers gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo)
Hajj pilgrims and Saudi emergency personnel carry a woman on a stretcher at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this image posted on the official Twitter account of the directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency, rescuers respond to a stampede that killed and injured pilgrims in the holy city of Mina during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Muslim pilgrims gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo)
Emergency services attend to victims crushed in a crowd in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo)
Saudi emergency personnel and Hajj pilgrims stand near bodies covered in sheets at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi emergency personnel and Hajj pilgrims load a wounded person into an ambulance at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi medics tend to injured pilgrims after they arrived by ambulance at an emergency hospital following a deadly stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. At least 310 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
In this image posted on the official Twitter account of the directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency, rescuers respond to a stampede that killed and injured pilgrims in the holy city of Mina during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
A Saudi policeman pushes a wheelchair with an injured pilgrim outside an emergency hospital following a deadly stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. At least 310 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Hajj pilgrims and Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies at the site where at least 450 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
MECCA, Sept. 24, 2015- Health workers help the injured in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi authorities said the total number of pilgrims killed in the stampede Thursday in Mecca has risen to 453. (Xinhua/Sabaq Website via Getty Images)
In this image posted on the official Twitter account of the directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency, a pilgrim is treated by a medic after a stampede that killed and injured pilgrims in the holy city of Mina during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense agency via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Muslim pilgrims gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo)
Saudi policemen carry an injured pilgrim outside an emergency hospital following a deadly stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. At least 310 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi Arabia's civil defense directorate says at least 150 people have been killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
Muslim pilgrims walk after casting stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi Arabia's civil defense directorate says at least 150 people have been killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
Muslim pilgrims walk after casting stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi Arabia's civil defense directorate says at least 150 people have been killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
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SERMON PREACHER

King Salman was in Mina on Monday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha feast, to oversee implementation of the plan to avoid potentially deadly congestion.

On Sunday, pilgrims prayed on Mount Arafat at the climax of hajj. Prior to departing Mount Arafat back to Mina, they joined top Saudi officials in prayer at Namira Mosque, site of the last sermon by Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago.

But, for the first time in more than 35 years the Grand Mufti and the country's top religious authority, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, did not deliver the main sermon.

Instead, Saudi media said the imam and preacher of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Sudais, delivered the sermon.

Saudi media have said that Al al-Sheikh had asked to be relieved from delivering the sermon due to poor health.

Last week he joined an escalating war of words with Saudi Arabia's main regional rival Iran over the pilgrimage, when he said Iran's leaders were not Muslims in response to criticism by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over how it runs the hajj after last year's crush.

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