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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sweeping terror alerts sting tourist hotspots

Nairobi, May 16 (Reuters): Terror alerts spread around the world today amid suspicions of new al Qaida operations, but countries with tourist hotspots accused Britain of overreacting and the US of being “afraid of its own shadow”.

The terror alerts, including a British ban on flights to and from Kenya, followed suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia on Monday that killed 34 people, including eight Americans. Osama bin Laden's al Qaida was blamed.

Kenyans were dismayed at the British flight ban affecting their country — scene of past terror attacks that have killed hundreds — fearing the potential impact on an economy heavily dependent on tourism.

And Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad mocked the US for issuing travel warnings, including advice to its citizens not to visit his country.

“This is because they felt guilty as they have committed all sorts of actions like killing and oppressing others, and as such they’re afraid of their own shadow,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted Mahathir as saying.

But a senior official in Pakistan, hit by multiple bombings at Western-branded petrol stations in Karachi yesterday, said recent attacks might be linked.

“We have got clues. We suspect there could be a connection between the Karachi attacks and the terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia,” said Aftab Sheikh, head of Karachi’s provincial interior ministry. While the Pakistan attacks caused only minor injuries, the bombings in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter which has been a strategic US ally, were the most devastating against US interests since September 11, 2001.

Governments around the world believe al Qaida, the network of Saudi-born bin Laden blamed for the September 11 suicide hijacker attacks on US cities, are planning more assaults with its allies on Western targets. “It could be a variety of potential targets. It could be a variety of types of attacks,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.

British Airways suspended all flights in and out of Kenya yesterday and the British foreign office advised against travelling to the African country unless absolutely necessary.

Earlier this week, the Kenyan government released details of al Qaida suspect Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is accused of masterminding a 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, in which 214 people died, and last November’s suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan resort of Mombasa.

Kenya said he had been sighted in Somalia and could be operating within Kenyan borders. The US also warned its citizens of a “credible threat” of attacks in the region.

But Nairobi said the British travel ban was an overreaction that played into the hands of militants. The national security ministry said heightened security in Kenya was only a precaution in view of recent threats and attacks worldwide.

“The situation is regrettable because this information was not supposed to alarm anybody or any country, particularly those who we are cooperating with us in the fight against terrorism,” ministry spokesman Douglas Kaunda said.

Lebanon said it had smashed a plot to attack the US embassy in Beirut.

Australia and New Zealand warned their nationals to be on their guard in Southeast Asia, a region still haunted by last year’s Bali bombings which killed more than 200 people. Jemaah Islamiah, a radical Muslim group linked to al Qaida, was blamed.

The Australian foreign office said Australians should be extremely cautious in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor and Brunei.

“We continue to receive reports that terrorist elements in the region are planning attacks,” it said.

In a sign of the extent of US fears, The Wall Street Journal reported today that the US plans to make face-to-face interviews standard for most of the millions of people who request a visa to visit the country every year.

The plan, which the Journal said was still being worked out, was designed “to plug holes in antiterrorism efforts and address congressional criticism of lax consular operations abroad.”

The newspaper reported the plan was already causing concern among business, tourism and educational groups, which fear it would further slow the visa process.

Currently, fewer than half of visa applicants from more developed countries considered a low security risk are interviewed, the Journal said, quoting Bush administration officials.

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