Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the "Jamarat" ritual, the stoning of Satan, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on September 12, 2016
Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the "Jamarat" ritual, the stoning of Satan, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on September 12, 2016 © Ahmad Gharabli - AFP
Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the
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AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Muslims climb Mount Arafat in hajj high point

Muslims from around the world on Monday returned to the scene of last year's deadly stampede to perform a stoning ritual near Mecca that is the final major rite of the hajj.

Rivers of pilgrims flowed on multiple ramps toward the Jamarat Bridge where the "stoning of the devil" took place under high security and without incident, the interior and hajj ministry spokesmen said.

Last year's stampede was the worst disaster in hajj history.

Riyadh issued a death toll of 769, although figures compiled from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a stampede tally of roughly 2,300.

But a number of safety measures have been taken and pilgrims said they were satisfied with this year's organisation.

"I was awaiting the worst and in the end everything took place perfectly," said a French pilgrim who gave his name only as Abdullah, 33.

"The Saudi police managed the situation very well," he said, after shaving his head to mark the end of the hajj.

Saudi pilgrim Ibrahim Ayed, 40, who took part in the hajj and the stoning ritual for the first time in a decade, agreed.

"There has been a clear improvement," he said.

The stoning -- expected to continue on Tuesday -- coincided with Eid al-Adha, Islam's feast of sacrifice which is celebrated by more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.

Sheep are slaughtered and the meat distributed to needy Muslims, commemorating prophet Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son on the orders of God, who in the end sent a lamb in the boy's place.

Pilgrims have no need to get blood on their hands, though. They can simply purchase computerised coupons to order a sacrifice -- without even seeing the beast.

The Jamarat ritual, in Mina at the eastern edge of Mecca, emulates Abraham's stoning of the devil in resisting the temptation to disobey God's order

Elevated cameras stationed several metres (yards) apart filmed the pilgrims, most clad in white and moving behind coloured flags identifying their groups.

- Safety first -

The stoning bridge, which resembles a large multi-storey car park, was erected in the past decade at a cost of more than $1 billion (900 million euros).

It was designed to prevent overcrowding.

Hundreds of police were stationed on each of the Jamarat's five floors, linked by escalators, from where pilgrims tossed gravel-sized stones against rough stone walls.

More than 1.8 million faithful, most of them from abroad, are performing the six-day hajj, which officially ends Thursday.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and capable Muslims must perform it at least once.

Faruk Hamloui, an Algerian who for years has guided his compatriots at the hajj, said "people learned and understood that only organisation and respect for the routes" can avert tragedy.

It is a message emphasised by officials.

They "stressed the need to adhere to directives and not take lightly the movement of pilgrims towards the Jamarat Bridge," Mahmoud Damanhoori, board member of a local foundation which assists Southeast Asian pilgrims, told AFP.

Dozens of officers regulated the flow of pilgrims at the edge of the stoning walls.

Three policemen stationed overhead on a metal promontory sent instructions by walkie-talkie to officers on the ground who intervened when pilgrims lingered too long or blocked the way.

- Stampede memories remain -

The base of the three walls was covered by a thick layer of foam to soften impact in case of a crush.

"I feel safe. The rest depends on God. I only rejoice at having fulfilled my dream," said Mohammed Rahman, 65, from Bangladesh.

The hajj which began on Saturday left Jordanian pilgrim Zeina Qaeessi, 44, visibly fatigued.

"We really walked a lot but I am very happy," she said. "I am very moved."

Saudi Arabia announced an investigation into the stampede but Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki told reporters that "the commission of inquiry has not yet announced an official result".

Kassoum Kouanda, 50, a businessman from Burkina Faso who was injured in the 2015 crush, recalled that "there were bodies everywhere. All the streets were littered with bodies."

Despite safety and security measures which Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Shiite Iran has angrily questioned the kingdom's custodianship of Islam's holiest places.

Iran last year reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its 64,000 pilgrims are excluded from this year's hajj after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.

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