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Friday, March 19, 1999 Published at 17:43 GMT

World: Middle East

Saudi King pays for pilgrims

Iraqi Muslims crossed the border without permission

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay the visa costs of up to 20,000 Iraqi pilgrims who entered the country illegally.

Richard Downes: Iraq has been critical of its neighbour in recent months
The pilgrims, determined to perform the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, had poured over the Saudi border without visas, and with little food and money.

The pilgrims, who were lead by senior Iraqi officials, drove through two checkpoints and did not stop until they reached the border town of Arar.

[ image: Mecca expects two million visitors this year]
Mecca expects two million visitors this year
The Saudi Arabian monarch dissipated the tension by agreeing to host the pilgrims and to pay their costs.

Correspondents say Iraq appears to be using the annual Hajj pilgrimage to highlight the harsh effects of United Nations sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Once visas are issued the pilgrims will be transported nearly 2,000 km to Mecca in buses provided by the Iraqi authorities.

Seized plane

The development comes after Saudi Arabia released an Iraqi plane carrying Hajj pilgrims which landed in the country sparking a diplomatic row.

Saudi authorities seized the aircraft fearing the flight had broken UN sanctions.

They wrote to the UN sanctions committee asking for urgent advice.

But the committee was unable to reach agreement as member states have different views on whether the flight constitutes a violation of UN sanctions.

Saudi Arabia says it will follow a similar procedure with any more Iraqi planes carrying pilgrims.

Around two million pilgrims from around the world are expected in Saudi Arabia for this year's Hajj, a key date in the Muslim calendar.

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