U.S., UK curb electronics on planes from Middle East, North African airports

WASHINGTON/LONDON, March 22 (Reuters) - The United States and Britain on Tuesday imposed restrictions on carry-on electronic devices on planes coming from certain airports in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa in response to unspecified security threats.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said passengers traveling from those airports could not bring devices such as tablets, portable DVD players, laptops and cameras into the main cabin that are larger than a mobile phone. Instead, such items must be in checked baggage.

Britain took similar steps, with a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May saying that there would be curbs on electronic items in the main cabin on flights from six countries in the Middle East.

The moves were prompted by reports that militant groups want to smuggle explosive devices inside electronic gadgets, U.S. officials told reporters on a conference call on Monday.

"The U.S. government is concerned about terrorists’ ongoing interest in targeting commercial aviation, including transportation hubs over the past two years," a U.S. counter-terrorism official said in a statement.

"Our information indicates that terrorist groups’ efforts to execute an attack against the aviation sector are intensifying."

The airports covered by the U.S. restrictions are in Cairo; Istanbul; Kuwait City; Doha, Qatar; Casablanca, Morocco; Amman, Jordan; Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates.

Officials said the decision had nothing to do with President Donald Trump's efforts to impose a travel ban on citizens of six majority-Muslim nations. DHS spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the government "did not target specific nations. We relied upon evaluated intelligence to determine which airports were affected."

On March 6, Trump signed a revised executive order barring citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from traveling to the United States for 90 days. Two federal judges have halted parts of the ban although Trump has vowed to appeal.

While Democrats have criticized the Republican Trump's travel ban, Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee said he backed the new precautions.

"These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat. We know that terrorist organizations want to bring down aircraft and have continued to employ creative ways to try and outsmart detection methods," Schiff said in a statement.

However, human rights group Amnesty International said the restrictions raised "serious concerns that this could be yet more bigotry disguised as policy".

The airports affected by the U.S. electronics rules are served by nine airlines that fly directly from those cities to the United States about 50 times a day, senior government officials said.

AIRLINES ACT TO COMPLY

The carriers - Royal Jordanian Airlines, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines,Kuwait Airways [KA.UL], Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways - have until Friday to heed the new policy, which took effect early on Tuesday and will be in place indefinitely.

Several of the carriers, including Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Qatar, said early on Tuesday that they were quickly moving to comply. Royal Jordanian and Saudi Airlines said on Monday that they were immediately putting the directive into place.

An Emirates spokeswoman said the new security directive would last until Oct. 14. However, Christensen termed that date "a placeholder for review" of the rule.

The policy does not affect any American carriers because none fly directly to the United States from the airports affected, officials said.

A U.S. government source said that while the restrictions arose from multiple reports of security threats, some very recent intelligence had arrived which helped to trigger the timing of the current alert.

Reuters reported Monday that the move had been under consideration since the U.S. government learned of a threat several weeks ago.

U.S. authorities believe there is a threat from plots similar to an incident a year ago in Somalia, where a bomb hidden in a laptop blew a hole in the side of a plane although failed to down it, another source said.

 

Officials did not explain why the restrictions only apply to travelers arriving in the United States and not for those same flights when they leave from there.

The rules do apply to U.S. citizens traveling on those flights, but not to crew members on those foreign carriers. Homeland Security will allow passengers to use larger approved medical devices.

Britain said its restrictions would apply to direct flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, and that devices larger than a normal-sized smartphone would have to be placed in the hold.

The British regulations affect British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Atlas-Global, Pegasus, EgyptAir, Royal Jordanian, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, Turkish Airlines and Tunisair.

"The safety and security of the traveling public is our highest priority. That is why we keep our aviation security under constant review and put in place measures we believe are necessary, effective and proportionate," a British government spokesman said.

Angela Gittens, director general of airport association ACI World, likened the move to years-long restrictions on liquids aboard planes, which she said also came suddenly, in response to a perceived threat, and caused some disruption.

Airlines will adjust to the electronics policy, she said. "The first few days of something like this are quite problematic, but just as with the liquids ban, it will start to sort itself out."

The Homeland Security Department stepped up security of U.S.-bound flights in July 2014, requiring tougher screening of mobile phones and other electronic devices and requiring them to be powered up before passengers could board flights to America.

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