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