Saudi Arabia, in apparent defiance of Nigeria’s ultimatum, has deported 510 female pilgrims.
The deportees, mainly from Sokoto, Jigawa and Kano states, arrived at the Kano International Airport at about 8.30pm on Wednesday, aboard a Meridian Airline flight.
The female returnees were among the Nigerian women pilgrims for the 2012 hajj detained in Medina and Jeddah for not having male escorts while trying to enter Mecca.
Vice President Namadi Sambo had on Wednesday summoned the Saudi Ambassador to Nigeria, Khaled O.Y. Abdrabuh, to register the Federal Government’s displeasure over the incident. Sambo also gave Saudi Arabia a 24-hour ultimatum to redress the situation.
Spokesman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, Mallam Uba Mana, said those brought back were a part of 1020 earlier detained by the Saudi officials at the King Fahd Airport.
Mana was however silent on the fate of others who were still detained in Saudi Arabia.
He said the commission hoped that the Federal Government at the Presidency level would soon settle the matter which is already threatening the diplomatic relationship between the two countries.
“We are awaiting a response from the King of Saudi Arabia so that a discussion can be opened between the two parties.
“We strongly believe that there is hope in sight, we hope that shortly the whole thing would be resolved,” Mana said.
Meanwhile, Abdrabuh on Thursday reportedly said the dispute would be resolved within 24 hours (by today).
Findings indicated that the envoy gave the assurance during a closed-door meeting with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal.
Tambuwal has been nominated by the Federal Government to negotiate the release of the pilgrims with the Saudi authorities.
A source, who was privy to discussions at the meeting, confided in The PUNCH that Abdrabuh visited Tambuwal to brief him on efforts made by the two countries so far to resolve the dispute.
“He told the Speaker that in the next 24 hours, the problem will be resolved. He confirmed that there had been high-level talks between the officials of the two countries and assured that the problem of the pilgrims would be resolved within 24 hours”, the source stated.
However, there were indications that Tambuwal might fly out to Saudi Arabia on Friday (today) “to have a first-hand assessment of the situation and speed up the negotiation.”
“The Speaker may likely be on his way to Saudi Arabia tomorrow (today),” a source close to Tambuwal said about his trouble-shooting efforts said.
Officials at the Royal Embassy of the Saudi Arabia in Nigeria have however remained silent over the detention of the Nigerian pilgrims in their kingdom.
Our correspondent who visited the Embassy located on Plot 2666, Volta Close, Off Thomas Street, Minister’s Hill Cadastral Zone AG, Maitama, Abuja was not allowed beyond the gate.
A guard at the gate said no one was allowed into the compound without an appointment. Abdurabbah was said to have gone out on an official assignment.
When our correspondent called the official Embassy’s telephone line and asked to speak with the media officer, a female voice answered the telephone but refused to give her name.
On hearing the mission of our correspondent, she said, “On that issue, no comment, no comment, no comment.” She subsequently hung up. Subsequent calls to the line were not acknowledged.
In a separate telephone interview, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ogbole Ahmedu-Ode, said “The issue is being handled at the highest level of government.
“You must have heard that the Vice-President met with the Saudi Ambassador over the issue.” He then declined further comments.
Meanwhile, a top government official on Thursday said a final government decision on the issue would not be taken until President Goodluck Jonathan returned to the country.
Jonathan is attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He is expected back in Abuja on Friday (today).
“The issue is a diplomatic one and a decision cannot be taken until the President returns. The VP may take a position in conjunction with the Hajj Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but such a decision would need the approval of the President.
“Since he is expected back in the country on Friday, there is no need to be in a hurry. The decision will be deferred until his return.”
When contacted, the Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to the VP, Mr. Umar Sani, confirmed that Sambo had not heard from the envoy.
Sani however claimed that the 24 hours deadline would expire on Friday as government did not expect it to take effect on Wednesday evening when it was pronounced.
He said, “We are still expecting them to revert back to the VP. They still have the whole of today (Thursday) to do so.
“Since the ultimatum was given yesterday (Wednesday) evening, we expect that they may not start work on the issue until today.
“If at the end of the ultimatum, nothing is done, we will then announce our action. We won’t announce the next step yet in order not to create any unnecessary diplomatic row.”