Stoning the devil, animal sacrifice mark hajj's 3rd day

Pilgrims stoned pillars symbolising the devil to show their defiance on the third day of the hajj Friday as Muslims worldwide marked the Eid al-Adha holy day with mass animal sacrifices.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims filed by the three jamarat pillars in Mina tossing pebbles to mark Abraham's three rejections of the devil's attempts to persuade him to ignore God's instructions to sacrifice his son Ishmael as related in the Koran.

Despite a late downpour, the stoning was orderly, fulfilling Saudi hopes that enlarged pillars and a newly built five-storey walkway would end deadly stampedes as the faithful jammed into the area for the required ritual.

"It is a happy day because Eid al-Adha falls on a Friday, and together there are Friday prayers and the stoning of satan," said Nabila Ali, and Egyptian pilgrim in Mecca with her son.

"We prayed for the unity of Muslims and for Muslims to triumph over their enemies," she said.

Faeq Jarada, 60, a pilgrim from Gaza, said she and other pilgrims felt reborn "like a child" after the stoning ritual.

"I was afraid of problems at the jamarat bridge, but it was very easy," she said.

Officials announced a total 2.3 million people had undertaken the hajj this year, 1.6 million coming from abroad. The figure was 200,000 less than some original predictions.

Some pilgrims, especially those from inside Saudi Arabia, had feared the spread of swine flu, which four pilgrims ahead of the hajj.

But health authorities said proven infections remained only 57 with another 20 or so suspected cases.

Assistant chief of hajj security Khader al-Zaharani told Saudi television there had been no major problems.

"The whole world wants to know how we protect the safety of several million pilgrims at the same time," he said.

Stampedes of panicked pilgrims at the jamarat area were frequent in past pilgrimages. In 2006, 346 were crushed to death at the site.

The design of the new bridge, forcing all pilgrims to move in one direction and offering numerous exits, aims to prevent a recurrence.

Security was tight in the area, with two military helicopters flying overhead at all times.

Pilgrims were prevented from bringing any large bags into the jamarat area, to prevent people lugging suitcases from jamming up the crowds.

After throwing the pebbles, many pilgrims were also taking advantage of dozens of barbers around Mina to shave their heads as part of their purification, at 10 riyals 2.67 dollars per person.

The abattoirs mostly butcher the animals and freeze a part for donation to the poor in other countries.