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Iraqi choppers to defy no-fly zone to ferry pilgrims

map April 21, 1997
Web posted at: 10:02 a.m. EDT (1402 GMT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq said Monday it would defy a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone to send helicopters to the Saudi Arabian border to pick up "sick and exhausted" pilgrims returning from the hajj.

The Iraqi News Agency said the decision to send the aircraft was made after a high-level meeting headed by President Saddam Hussein.


"Any American practice threatening the safety of the helicopters and the pilgrims will be met with an appropriate action," the agency said, quoting what it called an authoritative source.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that while Iraq had other means of retrieving the pilgrims, the United States had no intention of shooting down civilian aircraft.

Defense Secretary William Cohen said that retrieving the pilgrims could qualify for an exemption to the ban on flights in the area, but added that Iraq is "in no position to simply be flaunting the rules."

Iraq maintains that the no-fly zone in the southern part of the country -- imposed after the 1991 Gulf War and expanded last fall -- is illegal, and has periodically tested Western resolve to enforce it.

On April 9, Iraq defied a U.N. ban on international flights in and out of the country when it sent a civilian plane to Saudi Arabia carrying 104 sick and elderly pilgrims to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The plane returned the same day.

The news agency said that lack of communication with the pilgrims and their widespread movement at the holy sites prevented Iraq from sending a plane to ferry the pilgrims home.

The original purpose of the no-fly zone was to protect southern Iraq's residents after a failed anti-government revolt in the area. Its expansion last fall was a punishment after Saddam sent Iraq's army to aid one Kurdish faction in the north against another.


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