RIYADH - Saudi Arabia has reduced the number of pilgrims that may perform the hajj this year due to construction work aimed at expanding the holy site of Makkah, Hajj Minister Bandar Hajjar said.

The authorities had decided to reduce by half the number of pilgrims coming from within Saudi Arabia and by about 20 percent those from abroad, said Bandar Hajjar.

“This is an exceptional and temporary decision,” the minister said, quoted by SPA state news agency late on Saturday. Some 3.1 million pilgrims performed the hajj last year, most of them from abroad. The mosque houses the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims worldwide pray. The decision comes also as Saudi Arabia battles the spread of the SARS-like MERS virus which has killed 28 people in the kingdom since September out of 33 victims worldwide.

This year the hajj falls in October.

Dr Bandar Hajjar said the decision to reduce the number of pilgrims at home by 50 percent and abroad by 20 percent was exceptional and temporary until the completion of the expansion projects at the holy sites. During an interview with Saudi TV channel, Dr Hajjar noted that the number of pilgrims was linked to previous agreements providing for 1,000 pilgrims for one million of the total population of countries.

He pointed out that the current expansion projects of the Grand Holy Mosque in Makkah would add 400,000 square meters to the current area to accommodate 2.2 million worshipers, the Jamarat Bridge from 6 to 12 floors to accommodate 5 million pilgrims per day and the Prophet’s Holy Mosque in Madinah would add 1.6 million worshipers to accommodate more than two million worshipers.

He explained that Masa Track for fast walk in the Grand Holy Mosque would accommodate after expansion from 44,000 pilgrims to more than 130,000 pilgrims.

The hajj minister added that that circumambulation tracks would increase their accommodation capacity after expansion from 48,000 to 105,000 pilgrims per hour.

He indicated that the expansion projects are associated with tunnels in the mountains linking the Grand Holy Mosque with Mina and neighborhoods of Makkah, noting that there were 54 tunnels with length of 30 kilometers and width ranging from 11 to 15 meters, in addition to pedestrians’ tunnels.

Dr Hajjar said the expansion projects included public transport comprising train, metro and all means of transport, pointing to the allocation of SR 62 billion for these projects.

A total of 36,000 Pakistani pilgrims are likely to miss the sacred religious ceremony. The cut will be equally applicable to the pilgrims of government and private scheme.