Yemen tightens entry rules for foreign travelers to try to screen out Islamic militants

By Ahmed Al-haj, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Yemen tightens visa rules to screen out militants

SAN’A, Yemen — Yemen will stop issuing visas to foreign visitors upon arrival to try to prevent Islamic militants from sneaking in to meet and train with an al-Qaida offshoot that has established a stronghold in the fractured and impoverished country, officials said Thursday.

Visitors requiring visas will instead have to apply for them at Yemeni embassies abroad before traveling in an effort to better screen out potential militants.

“These measures aim to end infiltration of al-Qaida elements who used to abuse these conveniences in place,” said Tarek al-Shami, a spokesman for Yemen’s ruling party.

Al-Qaida’s offshoot in Yemen has become a pressing concern for U.S. security after the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Dec. 25. FBI investigators say the Nigerian suspect told them he received explosives and training from the group in Yemen.

After the failed plot, Yemen intensified an offensive against al-Qaida with the help of U.S. counterterrorism aid and training.

The new visa rules come a day after Britain suspended direct flights to Yemen’s capital, San’a, in response to the growing threat from al-Qaida-affiliated militants based in the country.

It also follows a new U.S. Senate report quoting American law enforcement authorities as saying they believe as many as three dozen Americans who converted to Islam in prison have traveled to Yemen, possibly to train with al-Qaida.

The September 26 newspaper, run by Yemen’s Defense Ministry, confirmed the new visa rules and said the earlier policy allowing some visitors to get visas upon landing at the airport was meant to encourage tourism.

A counterterrorism official said travelers from North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and Persian Gulf nations will now be subject to the new order. Travelers from other countries either do not need visas or were already required to apply for them at Yemeni embassies.

Airport officials say the decision has not yet gone into effect. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Hundreds of militants are believed to be roaming lawless regions of the mountainous nation, sometimes under the protection of powerful local tribes that have their own grievances with the government.

According to the Senate report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press Tuesday, several of the Americans believed to have traveled to Yemen have “dropped off the radar” for weeks at a time and continue to carry U.S. passports.

Yemen, an impoverished country with a weak government whose authority does not extend far outside the capital, is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland. The offshoot al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was formed a year ago when Yemen and Saudi militant groups merged.

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