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Saudis see no trouble from Iranian pilgrims at Mecca

RIYADH, March 21 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it does not expect trouble from the tens of thousands of Iranians at the annual Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca that starts this week.

"Nothing will happen," said Interior Minister Prince Nayef ibn Abdel Aziz, quoted in Saudi newspapers. "I don't think our Iranian brothers will do anything that could endanger the pilgrimage."

Prince Nayef was referring to the anti-US and anti-Israeli demonstration which Iranian Moslems hold each year during the pilgrimage -- known as the hajj -- to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca, western Saudi Arabia.

In 1987, more than 400 people were killed in clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces.

Iran said the demonstration, called "Disavowal of Pagans," was staged without incident last year as pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat, near Mecca, for the high point of the hajj.

"They know that we will not intervene in anything that takes place within homes or tents," Prince Nayef told reporters, hinting that Saudi authorities would turn a blind eye to a demonstration within the pilgrims' camps.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA said last Tuesday that more than 60,000 Iranians had already arrived in Mecca for the pilgrimage. A demonstration was to be held during the coming week.

Under to a quota set by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Iran is to send a total of some 80,000 worshippers to the hajj, which takes place this year until the end of March.

Despite tension in past years over the demonstration, ties have warmed between Tehran and Riyadh since the May 1997 election of moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president.


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