Nearly two-and-a-half million Muslim pilgrims are believed to be gathering in Mecca ? Islam?s holiest city ? to take part in this year?s Hajj. It is a requirement of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in a lifetime. White-robed men and women of many nationalities marched on foot or boarded buses to Mina today after dawn prayers. They will spend the day in prayer and meditation before heading farther south Monday to mount Arafat for the climax of Hajj.

However, several thousand Nigerian Muslims will not be taking party in this year?s events.  They were left behind in Lagos as the extension to a deadline for arriving pilgrims expired Friday.

From Abuja, reporter Gilbert Da Costa says about 50 thousand Nigerians made it to Saudi Arabia this week, but about 12 thousand remained stranded at airports or camps waiting to be airlifted to the Middle Eastern country.  

He told VOA?s William Eagle that the failure occurred despite a last minute extension agreed upon by President Olusegun Obasanjo and Saudi authorities. It also followed a government effort this past weekend to arrange for commercially operated airlines to help with the airlift. 

?Virgin/Nigeria [airlines],? he said, ?was asked to cancel all commercial flights and to divert all its aircraft to the evacuation exercise.  In one case, an aircraft destined for South Africa was subsequently asked to fly to Saudi Arabia.  The passengers were stranded and got quiet upset and insisted they would not allow the flight to fly to Saudi Arabia.?  

Reporter Gilbert DaCosta says after several hours of delay and negotiations, the airline ? and authorities -- realized the plane not have time to meet the deadline for arriving in Saudi Arabia, and the aircraft was returned to its original flight plan.?