RIYADH  - Saudi Arabia has rejected requests by 40 countries to increase their haj quota this year because of development projects now underway in the two holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, local dailies said on Wednesday.

"The ministry has apologised to all countries which had asked to increase the number of their pilgrims this year... (because of) the giant development projects in Mecca and Medina which make it difficult to accommodate more numbers," haj minister Bandar al-Hajjar was reported as saying. Saudi King Abdullah has officially launched a $10.6-billion (7.3-billion-euro) extension project of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The peak of this year's haj is expected to take place on or around October 25.

Every Muslim country has a haj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants. The quota system was imposed after an attempt by Saudi police to stifle a demonstration by Iranian pilgrims holding an anti-US and anti-Israel protest in 1987 sparked clashes in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those Muslims who are able to do so. Last year, nearly three million Muslim pilgrims performed haj, the world's largest annual gathering. The authorities had not indicated that they would be able to accommodate more pilgrims this year.