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Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner
"Saudi authorities are under pressure to cope with growing numbers of would-be pilgrims"
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Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 23:51 GMT
Millions begin Mecca pilgrimage

Kaaba The Kaaba in Mecca is a central focus of the Hajj

The authorities in Saudi Arabia are preparing for the annual influx of up to two-million Muslims for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Although the climax of this year's Hajj is in mid-March, the first scheduled flight carrying pilgrims is expected to land in the Saudi holy city of Medina on Thursday from Kuala Lumpur.

Mecca Pilgrimage to Mecca is a holy duty for Muslims
Those on board will be greeted by the governor of Medina, Prince Miqren al-Sa'ud.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars, or duties, of the Islamic faith, requiring all able-bodied Muslims to make the journey to Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, at least once in their lifetime.

Correspondents say that, with more than one billion Muslims in the world, the authorities are under pressure to cope with growing numbers of would-be pilgrims.

Mass influx

Saudi Arabian airlines predicted it would fly in 616,000 pilgrims from overseas, an increase of 24% on last year, as well as 200,000 on domestic flights.

Past tragedies
1998: 119 crushed to death in stampede
1997: 343 pilgrims die in tent city fire
1987: 400 die in protests
And the Indian Embassy in Riyadh was expecting 124,000 pilgrims from India, up 20% on last year.

As more than 20,000 British Muslims make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the British Foreign Office decided to set up a temporary consulate during Hajj from this year.

The United Nations sanctions committee has authorised Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines to fly 12,000 Afghan pilgrims to and from Mecca.

Safety measures
Fire-proof tents
Gas cookers banned
Medical teams on hand
Saudis restricted to one pilgrimage every five years
The committee said 180 round trips had been approved, between 9 February to 9 March, and 25 March to 23 April.

This is an exemption from the sanctions imposed last November, after the ruling Taleban refused to surrender Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden for trial on charges of plotting the August 1998 bombing of US embassies in Africa.

Ariana's manager in Kabul, Mohammed Daoud Sharafi, said the airline was anxious for the return of its hijacked Boeing 727 from Stansted airport near London, now that the hostages have been released.

"We are concerned about our plane because in a few days we are planning to send people on Hajj in Saudi Arabia," he said.

Ariana ageing fleet comprises only four Boeing 727s and five Antonovs.

A UN ban on Iraq's state carrier remains in force, although last year the Iraqi government symbolically busted the sanction with several pilgrim flights for those unable to make the long trek by land.

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See also:
18 Mar 99 |  Middle East
What is the Hajj?
05 Nov 99 |  Middle East
British consulate in Mecca
26 Aug 98 |  Middle East
Saudi Arabia imposes pilgrimage limit
19 Mar 99 |  Middle East
Saudi King pays for pilgrims
10 Apr 98 |  Middle East
Hajj stampede victims being identified

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