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Mecca hears cries of "Death to America" ahead of Iranian rally

MECCA, Saudi Arabia, March 24 (AFP) - Cries of "Death to America" rang out in Islam's holiest city of Mecca as pilgrims held a protest in defiance of a Saudi ban, an Iranian official said Wednesday.

Iran, meanwhile, announced it would hold its own anti-US rally on Friday but not in Mecca itself.

Ahmad Purnejati, deputy head of Iran's pilgrimage mission, told AFP that the first protest took place on Tuesday in front of the Grand Mosque. The pilgrims' nationality was unknown.

"There is no indication that the pilgrims in question were Iranians," the official stressed, quoting witnesses. The slogans were chanted in Arabic and not Farsi.

They chanted "Death to America", "Death to Israel", and "Moslems unite," he said, adding that Saudi security forces did not intervene but were deployed at the scene.

In contrast, the official Iranian news agency IRNA said the protest took place as pilgrims circled the Kaaba, a sacred stone inside the Grand Mosque complex.

Saudi security forces entered the mosque following the protest, it said, adding that the pilgrims also called for the "liberation of Palestine."

Iran holds an anti-US and anti-Israeli rally named "Disavowal of Pagans" each year during the hajj pilgrimage. It has been a source of tension since 1987 when 400 people were killed in clashes with security forces in Mecca.

IRNA said its rally would be held this year on Friday in the Arafat plain near Mecca, where almost two million pilgrims are to gather for the high point of the hajj.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims would take part, it said, and a message be read out from Iran's spiritual guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"It's not a demonstration, but a gathering, a meeting," explained Purnejati. "The meeting will take place inside the Iranian camps, as usual. There'll be no problem."

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef ibn Abdel Aziz, quoted in newspapers on Sunday, also said he did not expect trouble from the contingent of 80,000 Iranian pilgrims.

"Nothing will happen," said the prince, whose country's ties with Tehran have warmed over the past two years. "I don't think our Iranian brothers will do anything that could endanger the pilgrimage."

He hinted Saudi authorities would turn a blind eye to a rally within the Iranians' own compound. "They know that we will not intervene in anything that takes place within homes or tents," Prince Nayef said.


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