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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Defiant Beauty Queens Fly to Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Beauty queens from more than 80 nations have jetted into Nigeria to compete in the Miss World pageant, defying calls for a boycott to protest death-by-stoning sentences imposed on Nigerian Muslim women for having sex outside marriage.

Several entrants did not show up for the charter flight that ferried the contestants from London to the West African nation's capital, Abuja on Monday. Miss World organizers could not immediately explain the no-shows, saying only that they hoped the others would arrive before the pageant finale on Dec. 7.

"Some people say there is a boycott. Is there a boycott? There isn't one," insisted Ben Murray-Bruce, director-general of the Nigeria Television Authority, the pageant's official broadcaster.

Last year 96 nations were represented in the pageant. Organizers said they expected 92 participants this year, including four latecomers. Journalists counted more than 80 contestants disembarking the plane in Abuja.

Absent this time were beauty queens from Costa Rica, Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa and Panama -- who all previously indicated they would boycott the pageant. Miss Sri Lanka also did not arrive, although organizers said she was expected later in the week.

Wearing casual clothing beneath green sashes emblazoned with their nationality, the Miss World aspirants who arrived in sweltering Abuja were greeted by Nigerian children clad in traditional cloth and carrying flowers. Performers sang Nigerian music as others danced and drummed.

"We're so happy to be here," Miss World president Julia Morley said. "We are here to put Nigeria on the map of international beauty."

After Nigerian Islamic courts sentenced four people to death by stoning for the offenses of extramarital sex and rape, at least nine nations -- Panama, Costa Rica, Spain, France, Kenya, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and South Africa -- threatened to boycott to pressurize Nigeria's government to rescind the sentences.

Pageant organizers chose replacements for the Belgian and French no-shows. In an apparent turnaround, Kenya's Miss World affiliate sent a contestant Monday after earlier indicating it would not.

In a recent public relations blitz, Nigerian government officials insisted they will not permit the stoning sentences to be carried out, yet refused to intervene directly to avoid alienating Muslim voters ahead of elections next year.

"You have no fears in this country. Your safety is guaranteed. And I assure you, no Nigerian has been stoned or will be stoned," Dubem Onyia, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said Monday to the newly arrived beauty queens, who clapped politely in reply. "Relax and enjoy yourselves."

At least one of those condemned to a stoning death, Amina Lawal, a 31-year-old single mother convicted in March, has gone into hiding while awaiting a second appeal by a higher Islamic court.

Nigerian Muslim fundamentalist groups have also protested against the pageant, prompting organizers to delay the event by more than a week until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

After a send-off banquet in London last weekend that Britain's Prince Edward decided to boycott, Miss World contestants were expected to begin a month of photo shoots and other activities Tuesday in the southeastern jungles of Cross Rivers state.