Stranded Afghans arrive for Hajj
MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Hundreds of stranded Afghan pilgrims have begun arriving in Saudi Arabia for the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage on Wednesday.
A last-minute airlift organised by Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was under way to bring thousands of Afghan Muslims to Mecca, according to news reports.
The UK government was using four C-130 Hercules transports to carry some 270 pilgrims each day from Kabul to Saudi Arabia, a Royal Air Force spokesman told the Associated Press.
Although the last official day for Hajj arrivals was Sunday, Saudi Arabia said it was reopening its airspace to the pilgrims, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
The agency said King Fahd also has ordered Saudi planes to Kabul to transport pilgrims. The UAE earmarked four planes for the mission, the Emirates News Agency reported, and Pakistan International Airlines has made several flights from Kabul.
At least 1,600 pilgrims have flown from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia so far, British peacekeeping force spokesman Capt. Graham Dunlop told AP.
Some Afghans 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 died in recent days while waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia, an Afghan interim government spokesman said.
The Saudi Arabia government is hosting several hundred Afghan pilgrims who have arrived in Mecca for the Hajj, said CNN Correspondent Rula Amin.
"In Mecca, the government has lots of housing compounds," Amin said. "They're keeping the Afghan pilgrims in relatively good facilities... They are also under very close watch."
Even though many of the Afghan pilgrims are arriving late for the Hajj, Amin said they still have time to perform the required rituals before heading to Mount Arafat in time for Thursday's climax, when the pilgrims ascend the vast mountain plain where the prophet Mohammad preached his last sermon 14 centuries ago.
Among the rituals required before Thursday is the circling of the Ka'aba, the stone building Muslims believe was originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
The Ka'aba is a symbol of unity for Muslims because all prayers, wherever they are performed, are oriented in the direction of the Ka'aba.
Pilgrims circle the Ka'aba seven times in a counter-clockwise direction. With nearly 2 million Muslims in Mecca for the Hajj, the area around the Ka'aba is extremely crowded.
"The pilgrims have to keep pushing and shoving their way around," said Amin.
Last year, about 35 Muslims died in a stampede while performing the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual.
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