Hundreds of camels have died in Saudi Arabia this week from a mystery ailment.

The Agriculture Ministry has said 232 camels died in the space of four days in the Dawasir Valley, 400 km (250 miles) south of Riyadh. King Abdullah has promised compensation for owners, who say the real number of deaths is far higher.

Agriculture ministry officials have denied an infectious disease caused the deaths and blamed them on animal feed supplied by food storage authorities.

"The disease has to be limited to one place to prevent it spreading and then they have to find a serum," said camel breeder Hamad al-Harthy, who talked of hundreds of deaths.

"They need to bring in help from abroad to find a solution," said trader Turki Abdelaziz.

Camels are big business in the desert kingdom and are traded by Bedouin tribes for thousands of dollars each. The animals are used for racing and their meat is also prized.

Authorities have been on the lookout for signs of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu over the last year. The virus was found in birds in two instances, in March and last year.

The Agriculture Ministry has lifted bans on poultry imports.