Riyadh: Saudi Arabia on Friday defended its decision to turn back hundreds of Nigerian women who flew into the kingdom for the Haj, saying they had failed to abide by the rules for the annual pilgrimage.

“The rules for the pilgrimage have been in force for several years and must be applied as they stand since nothing new has been introduced,” said Haj ministry spokesman Hatem Bin Hassan Qadi, quoted by the official news agency SPA.

“Women aged under 45 must be accompanied on the journey by a ‘mahramu’,” (a male with legal authority), the ministry said in a statement.

“This is mentioned on the entry visas ... and those who do not respect the rules are not authorised to enter” the kingdom, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah, it said.

Hundreds of Nigerian women, among more than a thousand denied entry to Saudi Arabia, flew back from Jeddah late Thursday after Nigeria suspended flights to the kingdom for next month’s Haj.

The angry would-be pilgrims, who were turned back because they were not accompanied by men, denounced their treatment at the hands of the Saudi authorities, with one traveller saying they had been treated as criminals.

A statement by the National Haj Commission of Nigeria described the situation as an “unprecedented and worrisome development”.

In all, more than a thousand Nigerian women have been stopped from making the Haj. They began arriving at Jeddah airport on Sunday and some had been stranded in Saudi Arabia for five days.