Hajj pilgrimage: Two million Muslims gather at Mount Arafat for peak of hajj

Their palms facing the sky, around two million Muslims gathered Thursday on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat for the highlight of the hajj pilgrimage, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings.

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With temperatures pushing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) under the desert sun, the faithful climbed the hill east of Mecca where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon some 14 centuries ago.

They gathered in prayer on Jabal al-Rahma, or Mount of Mercy, for the second day of the hajj — a five-day pilgrimage which all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime if physically and financially able.

Nada and Fida, two sisters from Syria, said they had dedicated their prayers to their home country, where more than 330,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since its civil war broke out in 2011.

Aerial view of the Mount Arafat, where thousands Muslim worshippers gather during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca (EPA/AAP)EPA/ABIR ABDULLAH

“I want Syria to go back to the way it was before,” said Nada, 52.

“And for our youth to come back home,” added her 47-year-old sister.

At sunset, a sea of pilgrims clad in white made their way down the hill and headed to Muzdalifa to spend the night.

On Friday, they will move on to Mina before sunrise for the hajj ritual of the symbolic “Stoning of the Devil”.

This year’s hajj has seen the return of pilgrims from Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran following a diplomatic row and a deadly stampede in 2015.

But thousands who would normally make the journey from neighbouring Qatar are absent apart from a few dozen because of a diplomatic crisis shaking the Gulf.

All eyes on Mina 

“I came up here last night and prayed, took pictures and called my family and friends,” said Maolana Yahia, 32, who made the trip from Indonesia.

Tunisian mother-of-three Fatima Arfawi said she was moved beyond words during the prayers on Mount Arafat.

“This is the first time I see anything like this, ever,” she said. “This day is dedicated to prayer for my three children and my family.”

In a hospital opposite the mountain, an area was set aside for people suffering dehydration or heat exhaustion.

Saudi Arabia’s Red Crescent said it had deployed 326 ambulances along the pilgrimage route to handle health emergencies.

Muslim worshippers pray during the Hajj pilgrimage on the Mount Arafat, near Mecca (EPA/AAP)EPA

“Some pilgrims, for example, forget to protect their heads with an umbrella when they pray,” said Bandar al-Harthi, a nurse at a hospital facing Mount Arafat.

On Friday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday, all eyes will be on the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, where the stoning ritual is held.

It was the scene of the 2015 stampede that claimed the lives of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, the worst disaster in the history of the hajj.

Politics and pilgrimage 

Tehran reported the largest number of victims in the 2015 stampede, with 464 Iranians among the dead.

The next year, amid heightened political tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iranian pilgrims stayed away from the hajj after the two countries failed to agree on arrangements and logistics.

Iranian authorities say more than 86,000 Iranian pilgrims are taking part this year, each equipped with an identity bracelet in case of any accident.

Reza, a 63-year-old former oil company official from Iran, said he was torn between the joy of taking part and lingering grief over the stampede.

“They’ve taken more security measures otherwise we would not have come,” he said.

Saudi Arabia says it has deployed more than 100,000 security personnel to keep pilgrims safe.

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At the foot of Mount Arafat, mobile barriers had been installed to control the movement of the crowds.

Seated near the barriers, eight young women from Ghana who are all related took a brief respite after making their way from Mina.

Aged between 18 and 30, for some of them it was their first time away from home.

“This is the first time I leave Ghana,” said 25-year-old Khadija. “My husband let me come alone because it is Mecca.”

US orders closure of Russian consulate in San Francisco

The State Department said the decision was made “in the spirit of parity,” adding that the closures needed to be completed by Saturday.

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At the start of Donald Trump’s presidency in January, the Republican leader said he hoped for improved relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But after the US Congress approved new economic sanctions against Moscow over its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Putin in July ordered drastic cuts in US staff in retaliation.

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Along with the San Francisco consulate, the installations ordered closed were a chancery annex in Washington, where Moscow has a giant embassy complex, and a consular annex in New York.

“The United States has fully implemented the decision by the government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries,” she added, noting that, with the closures ordered, “both countries will remain with three consulates each.”

AP

Putin said 755 diplomatic staff — both Russian and American — would have to stop work by Friday, although the US State Department has not confirmed the number.

The number of US diplomatic staff will now be capped at 455, the same number that Russia has in the United States.

It is not clear how many of the US-employed staff losing their jobs will be physically leaving the country, or how many are Russian citizens. The RBK news site cited sources saying that at least 600 are Russian.

“We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better,” Putin said when he announced the cuts.

“But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it’s not for any time soon.”

On Thursday, Washington expressed hope that the two sides “can avoid further retaliatory actions… and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries.”

But the State Department warned: “The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted.”

Washington had already announced it would suspend issuing all non-immigrant visas in Russia between August 23 and September 1.

Visa operations at US consulates will remain suspended indefinitely.

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Barcelona terror attack: 16 dead, as Spanish police ‘foil a second attack’

Eight Australians caught up in Barcelona attack: BishopFive suspects killed by police in Cambrils, linked to Barcelona attackAustralian leaders react to Barcelona terror attackGovernment ‘concerned’ Aussies involved in Barcelona terror attack In pictures: Aftermath of Las Ramblas attack ‘There were bodies on the ground’: Witnesses describe Barcelona attackTerrorist network likely behind Barcelona attack, says counter-terrorism expertWorld leaders condemn Barcelona attack

Police in the resort town of Cambrils, located about 100 kilometres south of Barcelona, say those behind a van attack which left six people injured were carrying explosive vests, according to the Associated Press.

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The confirmation follows Spanish police saying the deadly Barcelona van rampage that killed at least 13 people just hours earlier, the Cambrils police shootout and a house explosion are linked.

The four attackers shot dead by police in Cambrils, 120 kilometres south of Barcelona, were wearing fake explosive belts, according to the Spanish region’s head Carles Puigdemont. 

A fifth attacker died after earlier being injured in the operation.

Police were preparing to complete controlled explosions and called for calm in Cambrils ahead of the operation.

What happened in Cambril and the surrounding region.SBS

In few minutes we are going to make several controlled explosions in #Cambrils. If you hear detonations DO NOT be alarmed, are controlled!

— Mossos (@mossos) August 18, 2017

Six civilians were injured, two of them seriously, along with one police officer as part of the foiled terrorist plot in Cambrils, police have said.

Catalan police working on the hypothesis incident in Cambrils say it’s related to the earlier terrorist attack in Barcelona.

Police say they are investigating if the four alleged perpetrators who were killed and the one person who was injured and has been detained, were wearing explosive devices.

The BBC reports police action was necessary to stop a second attack in the country.

Earlier media reports said several attackers were shot dead in the shootout in the town.

UPDATE: Catalan police say they have killed the perpetrators of what they call a ‘terrorist attack’ in Cambrils, Spain 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/yu7nbpE88Y

— Reuters World (@ReutersWorld) August 18, 2017

Police officers engaged in an operation in Cambrils in which six pedestrians were injured and the 5 alleged perpetrators were shot and killed by police.EPA

The BBC has reported four attackers were shot dead.

Catalan emergency services said on Twitter that people in Cambrils, which is on the coast, should “stay home, stay safe.”

Police operation in #Cambrils for possible terrorist attack. If you are now in #Cambrils avoid going out. Stay home, stay safe

— Mossos (@mossos) August 17, 2017

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a driver deliberately slammed a van into crowds on Barcelona’s most popular street in an attack claimed by the IS. 

Police and Catalonia’s Interior Minister said they had arrested two suspects after the assault, the latest in a wave of vehicle rampages across Europe in recent years.

Death toll from Barcelona attack expected to rise

Police said they had arrested two suspects after the earlier Barcelona assault, the latest in a wave of vehicle rampages across Europe in recent years.

One of the men was Morrocan, with the other from Spain’s north African enclave of Mellila, though neither was the driver, Reuters reported.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she has received information that 16 people have died in the attacks, but Catalan authorities said the official death toll remains at 13. 

That number is expected to rise.

Ms Bishop said eight Australians are among the up to 100 people believed to be injured. 

One Australian woman is in a ‘serious but stable’ condition after the Barcelona terror attack.

“All we have been told at this stage is that she’s in a serious but stable condition,” Ms Bishop said.

“Our consular staff are on their way from Madrid to ensure that we have more staff on the ground. Our honorary consul, who has been stationed in Barcelona for a number of years, is visiting hospitals and keeping in close contact with the authorities.”

Ms Bishop said two young Australian men were also “directly affected” by the attack and have returned to their hotel, but will be seeking medical treatment.

The path of the van in BarcelonaGoogle

Twenty-six French citizens have been injured in the Barcelona terror attack, with at least 11 of them in serious condition, the French Foreign Affairs Ministry says.

The statement says French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will visit Barcelona on Friday to visit the victims, and that the French consulate in Barcelona is in contact with Spanish authorities.

Manhunt underway for driver of van

Esta es la furgoneta utilizada en el atropello múltiple. El conductor ha huido a pie.

La foto la he recortado porque se veía una víctima. pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/oG8Q7WHSEe

— Xavier Aldekoa (@xavieraldekoa) August 17, 2017

Josep Lluis Trapero of the regional police of Catalonia, where the popular seaside city is located, told reporters that two other people suspected of being involved in Thursday’s terror attack had been arrested — a Spaniard and a Moroccan.

He said the white van sped into the famous Las Ramblas street in Barcelona, one of the city’s busiest, around 4:50 pm (1450 GMT).

“It was full of pedestrians and knocked over lots of people… over many metres,” he said.

One of the suspects arrested over the attack is a man born in the Spanish territory of Melilla in northern Morocco, he said.

The other, Driss Oukabir, is Moroccan.

Neither of them had any criminal record, he added.

IS claims responsibility

The IS propaganda agency Amaq claimed that “soldiers” from the jihadist group carried out the attack, according to the Site Intelligence Group which monitors Islamist websites.

Witnesses told of the panic unleashed in an area thronging with local residents and tourists in Spain’s second biggest city, as world leaders united in condemning the carnage.

“We can confirm there are 13 dead and more than 50 injured,” regional interior minister Joaquim Forn said on Twitter. Belgium said one of its nationals was among the dead.

0:00 Barcelona’s most famous street Las Ramblas was packed with tourists when a van drove into the crowds, leaving scenes of carnage and panic. Share Barcelona’s most famous street Las Ramblas was packed with tourists when a van drove into the crowds, leaving scenes of carnage and panic.

The famous Las Ramblas is one of Barcelona’s busiest streets, lined with shops and restaurants and normally packed with with tourists and street performers until well into the night.

Police said there had been a “huge collision” between a van and pedestrians on the thoroughfare.

Injured people are treated in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district (AAP)AP

Spain’s royal family condemned the assault in unusually strong terms, vowing that their country would not be “terrorised” by extremists.

‘Bodies on the ground’

Witnesses told of scenes of horror, with bodies strewn along the boulevard as others fleeing for their lives.

“When it happened I ran out and saw the damage,” local shop worker Xavi Perez told AFP.

“There were bodies on the ground with people crowding round them. People were crying. There were lots of foreigners.”

Injured people are treated in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017AAP

Witness Aamer Anwar told Britain’s Sky News television that he was walking down Las Ramblas, which he described as “jam-packed” with tourists.

“All of a sudden, I just sort of heard a crashing noise and the whole street just started to run, screaming. I saw a woman right next to me screaming for her kids.”

Mossos d’Esquadra Police officers and emergency service workers near the site where a van crashes into pedestrians in Las Ramblas, downtown Barcelona,AAP

Earlier explosion could be linked to van attack

In a further twist, Trapero said police suspected a deadly explosion late Wednesday at a house in Alcanar some 200 kilometres south of Barcelona was linked to the van attack.

Trapero said the explosion left at least one person dead, and police suspected those in the house were “preparing an explosive device.”

“It seems there was an accumulation of gas that generated the explosion,” he said, without giving further details.

The Spanish suspect was arrested in Alcanar, while Oukabir was held in Ripoll in northern Catalonia.

Spain spared the worst of extremist violence before Barcelona attack

Spain had so far been spared the kind of extremist violence that rocked nearby France, Belgium and Germany.

But it was hit by what is still Europe’s deadliest jihadist attack in March 2004, when bombs exploded on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people in an attack claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired extremists.

Ethan Spibey, a charity director on holiday in the city, said he and several others had locked themselves in a nearby church.

“All of a sudden it was real kind of chaos… people just started running screaming,” he told Sky. “There was kind of a mini stampede.”

Tom Gueller, who lives on a road next to Las Ramblas said he saw the van speeding along the boulevard.

“It wasn’t slowing down at all. It was just going straight through the middle of the crowds in the middle of the Ramblas,” he told BBC radio.

A Greek diplomat in the city said three nationals had been wounded — a woman and her two children.

Thursday’s attack, which followed similar incidents in Britain, Germany and France, drew widespread condemnation.

0:00 US Vice President Mike Pence condemns attack in Barcelona Share US Vice President Mike Pence condemns attack in Barcelona

‘Revolting attack’

“The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and will do whatever is necessary to help,” US President Donald Trump tweeted.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron — whose country has witnessed a series of bloody jihadist atrocities including a truck rampage in Nice in July 2016 that killed 86 people — said his thoughts were with the victims of the “tragic attack”.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “revolting attack” and British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Twitter that London “stands with Spain against terror”.

The Nice carnage and other assaults including the 2015 Paris attacks on nightspots in the city were claimed by the Islamic State.

Deeply saddened by the attack on our city. All our thoughts are with the victims, their families and with the people of Barcelona.

— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) August 17, 2017

In another deadly vehicle attack in December, 12 people were killed when a man driving a truck ploughed into a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market.

Spain has emerged as a potential target for jihadists, with extremist websites mentioning it for historical reasons, since much of its territory was once under Muslim rule.

The authorities in Spain — the world’s third biggest tourism destination — generally remain discreet on the terror threat.

But they publicise every arrest of alleged jihadists, most of them detained for propaganda, recruitment for extremist groups or “glorifying terrorism.”

According to the interior ministry, more than 180 “jihadist terrorists” have been arrested since 2015.

Minister, crossbencher face court referral

Cabinet minister Fiona Nash and key crossbencher Nick Xenophon will be referred to the High Court over their dual citizenship as parliament begins what’s expected to be a fiery fortnight of sittings.

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The pair will join five others, including Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, under scrutiny over their eligibility to sit in parliament.

Another senator, independent Derryn Hinch, is awaiting advice on whether his US social security card disqualifies him.

That advice could result in him standing up in the Senate on Monday and asking he be referred to the court.

Senate President Stephen Parry is also expected on Monday to make a statement on One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s burqa-wearing stunt and refer the issue of a dress code to the procedures committee.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who heads to the Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa at the end of next week, will take a “business as usual” approach – talking up action on power prices and job delivery.

The government hopes to make progress on media reforms despite Labor saying they are no longer needed, given the CBS purchase of Network Ten.

“It is certainly the government’s intention to put media law reform to the Senate in the next fortnight,” cabinet minister Mathias Cormann said on Friday.

Welfare reforms and an overhaul of citizenship rules are also on the agenda alongside workplace law changes and new university funding arrangements.

The Senate will receive inquiry reports on the citizenship and welfare changes on Monday, which will inform debate on amendments.

In the lower house on Monday, a private member’s debate will be held on renewable energy, coal seam gas and guaranteeing mobile phone services in bushfire zones.

A wildcard for the sitting week will be the High Court’s hearing of a challenge on Tuesday against the same-sex marriage postal survey.

If marriage equality advocates succeed in stopping the survey, there’s likely to be furious debate in parliament and party rooms about the next step.

However, if it’s found to be within the government’s power to run the survey, forms will start hitting mailboxes soon after September 12.

Sheedy has Bombers in AFL flag mix

Essendon coaching great Kevin Sheedy says the Bombers have “as good a chance as anybody” of lifting the AFL premiership ahead of their elimination final with Sydney.

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Sheedy, who took the club to four flags over his Robert Menzies-esque reign at Essendon, says five decades of experience in the sport has him uniquely poised to judge.

He compared the class of 2017 to his “Baby Bombers” that came from the clouds to lift the 1993 premiership.

“I can tell you what happens in this game, only having been in it 50 years,” he said on Friday.

“We rolled into ’93 and no one thought we could win the premiership at the start of the year, at the middle of the year, at the end of the year.

“We lost our first final by a kick and from then on we went on. We grow. Young people grow in finals.

“That’s the exciting part for the Bomber fans out there and the players themselves.”

Sheedy said last year’s triumph by Western Bulldogs — from the same ladder position as Essendon finished in — provided the template.

“Did you think Hawthorn wouldn’t have won it last year? Well they didn’t,” he said.

“Did you think the Bulldogs? No. But they did.

“This is what the finals does present — a whole new ball park.

“Our speed and our ball winning ability is still there.

“The team itself has played very well against the best sides in the AFL and that’s one of its stronger points.

“When they’re up, the boys are confident. They’ve got good experienced leaders. In our middle core there’s young players coming through.

“That happened in ’93.”

Essendon face an arduous path to a premiership, beginning with an away trip to red-hot Sydney on Saturday week.

The Swans have won 14 of their past 16 games — the tightest of which was their one-point triumph over the Bombers in round 14.

The winner will play off against the qualifying final loser of Geelong v Richmond — where where Sheedy won three premierships as a player.

In fact, Sheedy has three clubs — adding in Greater Western Sydney where he was foundation coach — in the finals mix.

“I don’t think I can lose it. I think one of them are going to get it. I hope it’s the Bombers,” he said.

“Adelaide are in the box seat.

“The Giants have been up there, not playing great all year … the Tigers have shown an amazing amount of spirit.

“Whoever beats Adelaide is going to win it.”