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The first Syrian plane in more than a decade carries Muslim worshipers to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — For the first time in more than a decade, 270 Syrians traveled early Tuesday on a direct flight from Damascus to Saudi Arabia for the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage, Syria’s transport ministry said.

The development is part of an ongoing thaw in relations between Damascus and Riyadh, which days ago appointed Saudi Arabia’s first ambassador to war-torn Syria since ties were severed in 2012.

Syria was readmitted to the 22-member Arab League in 2023 after being suspended from the group for more than a decade due to President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2011. Most countries in the Arab world have since diplomatic relations restored. ties with Damascus.

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A second plane carrying pilgrims will leave Damascus for Jeddah late Tuesday, the ministry said.

Last year, 1.8 million Muslims from around the world took part in the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, making it one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. This year it starts on the evening of June 14.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and Muslims are expected to undertake it at least once in their lives, if they are physically and financially able to do so.

The uprising-turned-civil war in Syria, now in its fourteenth year, has killed almost half a million people and displaced half of the pre-war population of 23 million. The war has largely remained frozen, as have efforts to find a viable political solution to end it. Poverty is rampant on the front lines, aid is declining and a growing number of countries are sounding the alarm about rising migration.

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Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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