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Saudi Arabia will send women athletes to the 2012 London Games if they are invited by the International Olympic Committee, a Saudi official told Reuters on Wednesday in comments that suggested Riyadh was moving towards resolving the thorny issue.

"Saudi Arabia will allow female athletes to participate if they receive an invitation from the International Olympic Committee or other countries' Olympic committees," the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters by telephone.

"There is a joint committee of the IOC and the Saudi Olympic Committee to discuss which female athletes will receive an invitation and for which sports. No invitations have been issued yet."

Female participation in sports has long been a controversial issue in Saudi Arabia, where powerful clerics denounce women for exercising, saying it goes against their nature.

Women in Saudi Arabia are regarded as minors and require the permission of their guardian -father, brother, or husband - to leave the country and in some cases even to work Just weeks before the opening of the London Olympics on July 27, rights groups have criticized Saudi Arabia for its failure ever to send a female athlete to the Games.

In a report on Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to bar Saudi Arabia from participating in this year's Games. It cited a story in daily pan-Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat which said no Saudi women would take part.

The Saudi embassy in London announced last month that it would "oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games", but no Saudi women have won places through competitive qualification.

The Saudi official said on Wednesday, however, that there were other ways to obtain places: competitors could be given wild cards and invitations might be extended by Olympic committees. These channels are still an option for Saudi woman athletes, the official added.

The participation of women would be subject to their guardians' approval, and they must adhere to the dress code of Islamic law, the official said.

The Saudi Olympic Committee's general secretary, Rashed Al-Heraiwel, declined to comment.

Physical education is banned in girls' state schools in the kingdom but Saudi Arabia's only female deputy minister, Noura al-Fayez, has written to Human Rights Watch saying there is a plan to introduce it.