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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 12:43 GMT
Afghan pilgrims get airlift for Hajj
Afghan pilgrims sit aboard a British C-130 Hercules transport on a flight to Mecca
About 10,000 Afghans want to go to the Hajj
By the BBC's Michael Voss in Kabul

A major international effort is underway to help thousands of Afghan pilgrims fly to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, after the authorities in Kabul appealed for assistance.

Pilgrim waiting at Kabul airport
Some had to wait for two days at the airport
Four British transport planes with 280 Afghan pilgrims took off from Kabul airport at around midnight on Sunday. Saudi Arabia has also sent a jumbo jet to Kabul and Pakistan flew in an Airbus carrier.

With the fall of the Taleban and the return of peace to Afghanistan, about 10,000 people have paid to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

But almost all the planes belonging to Afghan Airlines - Ariana - were destroyed in the bombing campaign, and the expected charter flights failed to materialise.

Violence

Last week, there was serious crowd trouble at Kabul airport, where an estimated 900 pilgrims had been waiting two days for their flight.

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai
Karzai said he would not allow his country to slip back to violence

The president of Afghan Airlines was badly beaten, before being rescued by international troops based at the airport.

Later the Aviation Minister, Abdul Rahman, was murdered there, though it now appears that his killers used the angry pilgrims as cover for the attack.

Fearful that there could be further violence, the Afghan authorities appealed for international assistance in getting the pilgrims to Mecca.

About 3,000 pilgrims are now in Saudi Arabia, and the international airlift is expected to continue for another 48 hours.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Michael Voss
"Fot the past week tempers have flared"
See also:

16 Feb 02 | South Asia
Farewell to murdered Afghan minister
17 Feb 02 | South Asia
Saudis 'hold Afghan murder suspects'
16 Feb 02 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghan minister mourned
15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Imams call for trouble-free Hajj
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