Saudi rescuers reported no survivors among the more than 150 persons aboard a jetliner that crashed early today, soon after taking off from Jeddah with a load of Moslem pilgrims heading home to Pakistan.
Pakistan International Airlines officials said the crash, in rugged volcanic mountains about 20 miles north of Jeddah on the Red Sea, was the worst such disaster in the history of Saudi Arabia. It occurred as Saudi national guardsmen began a cleanup operations in the Great Mosque of Mecca, which had been occupied for five days by fundamentalist Moslem extremists who held hundreds of pilgrims hostage.
In the atmosphere created by the mosque takeover, the question of possible sabotage immediately arose. Statements from airlines officials and the Saudi government both said, however, that the crash stemmed from a fire in the electrical system. A routine investigation was ordered.
It was not known whether the pilgrims killed in today's crash were among the freed hostages. Saudi authorities have organized special charter flights and urged Moslem governments to speed the return of all their nationals still in Saudi Arabia after the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that ended days before the mosque seizure.
Embarrassed and outraged by the violence at Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, the government of King Khalid had refused to disclose the identity of the hostages or say whether any were killed or injured during the five-day siege or in the battle inside the mosque that brought it to an end.
[King Khalid, Sheikh Jabir-Ahmad Sabah of Kuwait and Sheikh Salman Khalifa of Bahrain held a summit meeting at Nassirya near Riyadh today, the Saudi news agency reported. The agency said no official indication was given of the subject of the talks, also attended by the head of the Saudi National Guard and the Kuwaiti and Bahrani foreign ministers.]
Similarly, authorities in Riyadh said nothing about the plane crash for 18 hours. The director of civil aviation, Abdullah Mehdi, made a brief announcement tonight only after foreign news agencies had obtained the information from the airline.
Airline officials said the four-engine Boeing 707 jetliner disintergrated into small pieces across a two-square-mile area in the rocky Hejaz mountains. The craft was on a scheduled flight from Kano, Nigeria, to Karachi, Pakistan, and picked up more than 100 pilgrims at Jeddah, they said.
The plane had taken off with no apparent trouble and risen to more than 10,000 feet when the pilot radioed back to Jeddah that there was smoke in the cabin because of an electrical fire, the airline officials said. He asked for permission to return for an emergency landing, but radio contact was lost soon afterward.
Pakistan International Airline officials in Jeddah said 151 persons were aboard, most of them pilgrims who boarded in that city. The airline office in Karachi put the total of those aboard at 156, and the Saudi director of civil aviation at 155.
Although pilgrim planes have crashed in the past elsewhere -- notably in recent years in Sri Lanka and Nigeria -- observers here could recall no similar large-scale airline crashes in Saudi Arabia.
Millions of airline passengers have streamed through the Jeddah airport in recent years on the way to make the Mecca pilgrimage, a religious goal of Moslems throughout the world. Saudi officials estimated 2 million persons attended this year's observances alone.