US offers to delay high-tech passports rule

The US is prepared to delay for one year plans to bar entry into the US for Europeans, Japanese and others who do not possess passports that contain machine-readable bar codes, the State Department said on Tuesday<strong>.</strong>

The offer is aimed at mollifying European countries that had warned the US of potential chaos if the new requirement were implemented from October 1 this year.

In an effort to prevent terrorists from entering the US, Washington has been steadily tightening its scrutiny of visas and passports that allow visitors to come to the country.

The US has been particularly worried that terrorists might acquire fraudulent passports or other documents in the more than two dozen mostly European countries where travellers do not have to obtain visas to visit the US. Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand are also visa-free countries.

While most European countries are now issuing machine-readable passports, many travellers still do not carry them.

The State Department said it was prepared to delay the new requirement for any country that certified it was now issuing machine-readable passports and was taking steps to protect against misuse of the older passports. The only exception is Belgium, where the US had been concerned about fraud and has been requiring machine-readable passports for all travellers since May 15.

Stuart Patt, a State Department spokesman, said the US was now focusing the effort on requiring all international passports to include biometric information, such as fingerprints. The US has set an October 2004 deadline for that requirement, and has threatened to deny visa-free travel for any countries that fail to meet the standard.

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