Heavy Rain and Swine Flu Fears Hamper Hajj
The Saudi authorities have warned pilgrims to take care in the rain
Heavy rainstorms have hampered the start of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, in the Saudi city of Mecca.
The authorities have warned pilgrims to take care in the rain at the event, which usually attracts about two million Muslims from around the world.
Fatal stampedes have marred the pilgrimage in the past, and many of the visitors stay in tents.A senior Saudi official has also told the BBC that fears over swine flu may keep some 40% of local pilgrims away.
Four people attending the Hajj have so far died from the H1N1 virus, but officials have sought to play down the risk.
The BBC's Shahzeb Jillani at the Hajj says General Mansoor al-Turki's admission that numbers might be down this year is the first official recognition that fear of swine flu may affect the event.Health ministry spokesman Khaled Marghlani told AFP on Wednesday that only 67 pilgrims had been confirmed and suspected swine flu infections so far."Everything is going smoothly, thanks to God," he said.
Crowds of pilgrims have been converging on Mecca in recent days, and started the Hajj rites on Wednesday.They began with Tawaf, walking seven times round the Kaaba - the cube-like building in the centre of the Great Mosque, Islam's holiest shrine - in an anti-clockwise direction.