Yemen stops issuing visas at airports

To help prevent terrorist infiltration, Yemen is to stop granting entry visas to foreigners on arrival at the country's airports.

SANA'A // In a step to prevent terrorists infiltrating into the country, Yemen announced yesterday it would stop granting entry visas to foreigners on arrival at the country's airports. "In the framework of efforts by our country to fight terrorism and strengthen security measures to prevent the infiltration of terrorist elements into the country, the granting of visas at airports to foreigners will be cancelled," an unidentified official was quoted by the state-run Saba news agency as saying yesterday.

The official said visas would be issued at Yemen's embassies. "In light of this decision, granting visas to foreigners will take place only through the embassies of Yemen, and after consulting security authorities to verify the identities of travellers," the official said. Hisham Sharaf, the vice minister of planning and international co-operation, said the government decision was a preventive measure. "This step is vital in light of the increasing threats of terrorism worldwide. It will not prevent terrorists from coming to the country under different reasons including doing business, but it is an important and necessary preventive measure," Mr Sharaf said, adding that the decision could be reviewed after the threats of al Qa'eda decreased.

"This decision is meant to minimise the ability of those militants to move around easily. It will also validate until the communication and intelligence networking with other countries is boosted and then it could be reviewed after sometime." The move comes after a report by a US Senate committee said some US citizens suspected of training in al Qa'eda camps in Yemen, including dozens who converted to Islam in prison, might pose a serious threat to the United States.

Two groups of Americans based in Yemen are causing concern for US counter-terrorism experts in the Gulf region, according to the report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff on Wednesday. Of most concern is a group of up to 36 former US convicts who converted to Islam in prison and arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic, the report said. Some disappeared and it is feared that they were "radicalised in prison and travelled to Yemen for training," the report added.

Under previous regulations, these people would have been allowed to enter the country automatically, without being vetted. The US Senate report did not disclose information about the other group raising concern. Yemen used to grant entry visas at its six international airports to visitors from the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan. Visitors from countries with bilateral agreements on entry would not be affected by the new rules, including those from Jordan, Syria, Sudan and Egypt, according to a passport authority official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to media.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, Michigan, studied in one of the language schools in Yemen and the US claims he was in contact with al Qa'eda operatives in the country. The incident led to the Yemeni government ordering on December 30 its embassies to issue visas only to students coming to Yemen to study Arabic or religion after interior ministry approval.

Yemen has also stepped up its attacks against al Qa'eda, which claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful attack over Detroit. A series of air strikes have been launched against the militants in different parts of the country. Security concerns have prompted Britain to suspend direct flights from Yemen as part of a series of measures to tighten border security, the prime minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday, warning that militant cells were actively planning attacks.

Abduelah Haidar, a Yemeni journalist who follows al Qa'eda, said he doubted the government measure would be able to stop the infiltration of al Qa'eda militants into the country. "We do not know the percentage of those who came legally and joined al Qa'eda as the government is not transparent and does not provide such information. However, I do not think this step taken by the government will be fruitful in stopping the infiltration of al Qa'eda elements for they use illegal ways including smuggling to move around. The militants coming from Saudi Arabia and Somalia, for example, come through smuggling," Mr Haidar said.