SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen will stop issuing tourist visas on arrival to foreigners in an effort to prevent militants entering the country as it steps up its war on al Qaeda, a government official and state media said on Thursday.
The move will mostly affect visitors from Western countries, including the United States, where a recent report said some U.S. citizens suspected of training in al Qaeda camps in Yemen may pose a serious threat to their home country.
“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,” the Yemeni Defence Ministry’s September 26 newspaper said.
Sanaa declared war on al Qaeda last week as pressure grew for a crackdown on the global militant group after its Yemen-based wing said it was behind a December 25 attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane.
Yemen also is battling a Shi’ite revolt in the north and separatism in the south. Western countries and neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda could exploit the chaos in Yemen to turn it into a launch pad for further attacks.
Yemen gained a reputation as an al Qaeda haven after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and came under a renewed spotlight after crackdowns on the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan raised fears Yemen was becoming a training and recruiting centre for militants.
Security concerns have also prompted Britain to suspend direct flights from Yemen in a wave of measures to tighten border security, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday, warning that militant cells were actively planning attacks.
The chairman of Yemenia airline said the national carrier would resume flights to London soon, after British officials inspected the Sanaa airport over the past two days.
“They were very happy, there were some small remarks, that will be fixed ... we will resume flights to the UK very soon,” Abdulkhaled Al-Kadi told Reuters at an air show in Bahrain.
But a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “That’s news to me.” Brown said on Tuesday he hoped flights could resume soon, “but the security of our citizens must be our priority,” he said.
Sanaa’s move to stop granting visas on arrival will affect tourists previously able to obtain entry at the airport, including those from Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan, the government official said.
“The granting of visas to foreigners will only happen via Yemeni embassies abroad, and after turning to the responsible security apparatus to investigate the identities of travellers to bar the infiltration of suspected terrorist elements,” September 26 quoted a security source as saying.
Visitors to Yemen from Arab states with bilateral agreements on entry such as Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Jordan, will not be affected by the new rules, said the official, who asked not to be identified.
But citizens of those states who travel to Yemen from a third country are required to get visas in advance, he added.
Two groups of Americans based in Yemen are causing concern for U.S. counter-terrorism experts in the Gulf region, according to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. The report was prepared for release at a hearing on Wednesday.
Most worrisome is a group of up to 36 former U.S. convicts who converted to Islam in prison and arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic, the report said.
Some members of the group have disappeared and it is feared they were “radicalised in prison and travelled to Yemen for training,” the report added.
Defence and counterterrorism officials say Washington has been quietly supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemen to root out suspected al Qaeda hide-outs.
General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has recommended doubling 2010 military aid for Yemen to about $150 million (92.5 million pounds). That is in addition to development aid worth about $63 million, some of which goes to Yemeni security forces.
Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Paul Taylor and Jon Hemming