MINA - Throngs of Muslim pilgrims took part in the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual for a second day Wednesday in Saudi Arabia's Mina Valley, as the annual hajj neared its end.
Around two million men, women and children from 188 countries are attending this year's pilgrimage, according to Saudi Arabia's public statistics office.
This is down from 3.16 million last year, after the kingdom cut the quotas over fears of infections from the MERS respiratory virus and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest place of worship.
The number of foreign pilgrims was 1.38 million compared to 1.75 million in 2012.
Pilgrims said the stoning ritual, one of the most dangerous aspects of the hajj in the past, had proved easier to perform this year due to the lower numbers.
The head of the hi-tech Command and Control Centre for Hajj Security, Major General Abdullah al-Zahrani, said two factors had played a role.
"The reduction in the number of pilgrims and the correct implementation of the security plan have contributed to the better organisation of this year's hajj," Zahrani told reporters Wednesday.
The centre has installed more than 5,000 cameras to monitor all the holy sites, including 1,200 at the Grand Mosque.
"We have installed and experimented with highly advanced cameras for the first time this year and this has proved successful," Zahrani said.
The centre in Mina has a large number of television screens that receive live videos round the clock from the holy sites.
Backed by three helicopters, the centre is able quickly to pinpoint problem areas and inform the concerned security authorities.
Saudi Minister of Hajj Affairs Bandar Hajjar said on Wednesday that his ministry has been instructed by the king to work out a 25-year long-term plan to ensure the smooth running of the pilgrimage.
Speaking in Mina on behalf of the ailing king to a number of Muslim leaders who performed hajj, crown prince and defence minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz called on Muslims to differences and disputes.
He also called for dialogue among Islam's main sects to "correctly understand each other," amid high tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Islam's main groups.
World leaders who performed hajj include the presidents of Turkey, Pakistan and Sudan.
The faithful began the stoning rituals on Tuesday, which was also the first day of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, when they threw pebbles at one of three huge concrete structures representing the devil.
On Wednesday, they threw seven pebbles at each of the three pillars in a ritual they will repeat over the next two days.
Those who are ill or pressed may complete the process on Thursday.
Authorities announced special measures to be implemented Thursday around the Grand Mosque, where many of the pilgrims will have their final circumambulation (Tawaf) around the kaaba and start leaving for their home countries.
Police said many roads in the area will be closed to traffic.
Mina, where the stoning ritual takes place, is a city of fireproof tents that can accommodate around two million people. It comes to life once a year during the pilgrimage.
Due to deadly accidents and stampedes in the past, the stoning area has been expanded with massive concrete structures to raise its capacity.
The ritual is an emulation of Abraham's stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God's order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
The hajj comes to an end officially on Friday although a majority of the rituals have already been completed.