Gaddafi wins battle of the haj with UN

Tripoli (Reuters) - Two airliners carrying Libyan pilgrims left for Saudi Arabia on the haj as the United Nations gave the go-ahead for their departure.

The start of direct flights to Saudi Arabia demonstrated the brinkmanship of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to force the United Nations to lift its 1992 flight ban, imposed as part of sanctions for the Lockerbie bombing. Libyans could travel abroad only by sea or land.

In a statement yesterday, non-Libyan pilgrims thanked Col Gaddafi, "Islam's hawk and brandisher of the jihad of Islam and Muslims, liberator of the holy shrines".

Earlier this week he raised the stakes by vowing that Libya was ready to fight a holy war to enable pilgrims to fly directly to Saudi Arabia.

The UN said in New York that it had approved a request for 45 EgyptAir flights to ferry 6,000 Libyans from Tripoli and Benghazi to Jeddah. They would have to be inspected at take-off and at stopovers by local governments and UN personnel. This could create difficulties, because of the number of flights and the apparent absence of UN staff in Benghazi or Jeddah.

Saad Mujber, head of the pilgrims' delegation, said: "We are simply exercising a religious Islamic duty that cannot be subject to permission from non-Muslims.'' Saudi Arabia welcomed the arrival of Libyan pilgrims. Asked if his country would receive Libyan planes carrying pilgrims, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, was quoted as saying the kingdom would welcome any Muslim.