British pitch in to transport Afghan pilgrims
Three die waiting outside in the cold
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Hoping to ease long lines and growing frustrations at Kabul's airport, the British military sent a transport plane here Sunday night to carry Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Some Afghans have waited as long as two days outside the airport's terminal building on the apron of the runway, hoping to get a seat on a Saudi-bound flight.
The airport has no departure lounge, forcing passengers to endure frigid temperatures.
Three pilgrims have died in recent days while waiting outside, an Afghan interim government spokesman said.
It was not known whether the British C-130 that arrived Sunday would be the only coalition military aircraft to be pressed into service to carry the pilgrims.
About 2 million Muslims from more than 70 countries attend the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, each year.
The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam that form the framework of Islamic life. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are expected to perform the Hajj at least once.
This year's pilgrimage formally begins Wednesday -- the eighth day of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic year -- and will last for as long as six days.
Afghanistan can send 15,000 people, the quota allotted the central Asian country as part of a system designed to regulate and control the number of pilgrims.
Under the Taliban, only those favored by the regime -- mostly ethnic Pashtuns -- were allowed to make the pilgrimage.
Afghanistan's new interim government has opened up the process to all Afghan men and women able to pay $1,502 to make the journey -- a sum several times the average Afghan's annual wage.
"We do everything can to make sure we have the money to feed our families," a prospective pilgrim said while waiting last week at the government's ministry for the Hajj. "Only then do we make our arrangements for the Hajj."
-- CNN Correspondent Brian Palmer contributed to this report.
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