External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, on Sunday flagged off the first batch of Haj pilgrims from Karnataka to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, at the Bajpe airport here.

This is the first time Haj pilgrims from coastal districts of the State have flown to Jeddah directly from Mangalore, after the Bajpe airport was added to the list of 18 destinations across the country, from where direct flights are operated to Saudi Arabia, by National carrier Air India and Saudi Arabia Airlines.

The first batch, consisting of 112 Hajis, boarded an Air India Express flight to Jeddah after completing the formalities at the Haj camp, set up in Ansari Masjid ground near the airport for convenience.

“About 700 pilgrims are going on Haj from this airport in six batches of 115 each daily till Oct 30. A special camp has been opened near the airport to facilitate the smooth passage of Hajis to Mecca and Madina in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Krishna told about 1,000 people, including relatives, friends and community leaders who assembled for the grand event.

Until now, Haj pilgrims from coastal and northern regions of the State had to fly to Jeddah or Riyadh in Saudi Arabia from Bangalore, Kozikode in Kerala and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

“We are providing connectivity to Haj pilgrims from across the state from Bangalore, Mangalore and Hyderabad. Pilgrims from northern districts such as Gulbarga and Bidar will fly out of Hyderabad, those from coastal and central districts from Mangalore and southern districts from Bangalore,” he said.

Haj pilgrims from northern coastal towns and districts of Kerala also can fly from Mangalore airport to avoid transit hassles. Noting that direct flights from Mangalore would help the pilgrims to avoid the menace of private tour operators, Mr. Krishna said there was an urgent need to check irregularities committed by middlemen in the guise of helping them in the exercise.

“The private operators will curse me, but I will do it for a good reason, so I hope the curse will not harm me,” he quipped.

Among dignitaries present on the occasion were State Minister for Wakf and Minority Development, Mumtaz Ali Khan, Rajya Sabha member, Oscar Fernandes, former Union Minister, Janardan Poojary and prominent Muslim leaders from the region.

The State Haj Committee and Wakf Board have made arrangements to conduct orientation programme for the pilgrims prior to their departure from Mangalore and medical help at Jedda and Riyadh consulates in Saudi Arabia, during the month-long trip.