Thai Muslims leave for hajj on special flight
The Associated Press
Published: November 28, 2008
A group of 250 Thai Muslims left Friday for the hajj on a special flight from southern Thailand after their original plan to fly out of the country's main international airport was disrupted by anti-government protesters.
Another group of 460 Thai Muslims remained stranded at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok as the authorities negotiated to fly them out of the U-Tapao military airport, about 140 kilometers, or 90 miles, from Bangkok.
The pilgrims had arrived in Bangkok from the Muslim-majority southern provinces on Tuesday, hours before protesters took over Suvarnabhumi, the country's main airport, and forced it to shut down.
Other pilgrims who had planned to arrive later in Bangkok stayed in the south, unsure whether they would be able to go on the hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most Muslims, who save for years to make the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Their predicament was resolved when Thai Airways decided to operate a special flight that took off Friday from the southern city of Hat Yai, with 250 pilgrims aboard, an airline official said.
The pilgrims will go to Saudi Arabia via Oman, she said, asking not to be identified because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
Tour operators said the 460 other Thai Muslims stuck in at the Bangkok airport would be taken by bus to U-Tapao. From there, they could get connecting flights on Iran Air to Saudi Arabia.
But Iran Air will not operate the flights until the Thai government guarantees that the airport will not be overrun by protesters, said Sunanta Wuttisakun, an Iran Air representative.
She said the situation could be resolved within two days, which would allow the pilgrims to make the deadline for the start of the hajj on Monday.
"Everyone is trying to help them," she said.
Thai Muslim leaders have warned that a failure to assist the pilgrims could damage relations between predominantly Buddhist Thailand and Saudi Arabia. It could also further damage the Thai government's credibility in the country's largely Muslim south, where Islamic militants have waged an insurgency since 2004.