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Witnesses: Hamas Blocks Hajj Pilgrims From Leaving Gaza


Witnesses say the Islamic militant group Hamas has blocked scores of Muslim pilgrims from leaving the Gaza Strip for the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Witnesses said Hamas police set up checkpoints Saturday on the road leading to the Rafah border post where the pilgrims were planning to cross into Egypt on their way to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Hamas denied that it was stopping pilgrims and accused Egypt of failing to open the border post as promised. But Egyptian officials and witnesses on the other side said the border was open.

The dispute appears rooted in the standoff between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the rival Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The groups gave Saudi authorities separate lists of pilgrims applying for Hajj visas. Saudi Arabia only gave visas to those on the Fatah-sponsored list. Hamas is now insisting that its own applicants be given visas as well.

The Rafah crossing has been largely closed since Hamas took control of Gaza last year, but Egyptian authorities said this week they would open it for three days to allow thousands of hajj pilgrims to leave.

Saudi Arabia limits the number of pilgrims each country can send to the annual hajj, to avoid overcrowding. Gaza this year was allocated 3,000 visas.

More than two million people made last year's pilgrimage. The hajj is the largest regular religious event on Earth. The five-day pilgrimage is scheduled to begin next week.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.

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