Airlines in the United Arab Emirates say they have stopped carrying cargo from Yemen as a precaution following the discovery of two mail bombs shipped as air freight.
The Middle East's biggest airline Emirates, which operates out of Dubai, and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways each confirmed the cargo embargoes in response to questions Sunday. Discount carrier Air Arabia, based in the emirate of Sharjah, also said it had stopped accepting freight originating in Yemen.
One of two packages sent in the mail bomb plot late last month was discovered at a FedEx cargo facility by UAE authorities in Dubai. It arrived in the city-state after traveling on two separate Qatar Airways flights, whose officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on their cargo policies Sunday. The second mailed bomb, shipped by UPS, was intercepted in the United Kingdom. The two packages contained the industrial explosive PETN packed into the toner cartridges of Hewlett-Packard printers destined for addresses in the United States. While the exact aim of the plot is unclear, a senior US official has said evidence points to a plot to blow up cargo planes inside the US, either on runways or over American cities.
The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the bombs and has vowed to send more explosives-packed parcels.
Air Arabia, the discount airline, said it put its ban in place Tuesday following a security directive from Emirati authorities, who have not commented in detail about the measure. Etihad said it has been blocking Yemen shipments since sometime last week. Etihad also said it has stopped carrying goods from Somalia, which sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and maintains long-standing trade ties with its Arab neighbor. It said in a brief statement the bans will hold "until directives from governments around the world permit carriage of goods from these ports." Several countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France, have taken similar precautionary measures over the past week, with the Germans banning all cargo and passenger flights from Yemen and the Americans temporarily halting all incoming cargo and mail from the poor Arab nation.
The UAE late last week announced it was tightening security at the country's airports to more closely monitor goods from certain unnamed countries. It did not provide details.
Saif al-Suwaidi, director general of the General Civil Aviation Authority, told The Associated Press on Saturday that officials were focused on security threats not only from Yemen, but from other countries as well.
Emirates and Air Arabia fly directly from the Yemeni capital, San'a, to the UAE. Etihad and Dubai-based discount carrier FlyDubai do not.
Gulf Air, which flies to Yemen from the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, is also tightening its restrictions. Spokeswoman Katherine Kaczynska said the carrier is monitoring the situation and has implemented recommendations issued by Bahrain's aviation authority. Bahrain has called on carriers to only accept mail and packages sent from Yemen that have a final destination in the kingdom. The goods must be screened or searched before being loaded and cannot be shipped onward to another country, it said.
International courier companies routinely ship packages on scheduled commercial flights. FedEx, UPS and Mideast-based shipping company Aramex each put bans on Yemen cargo in place shortly after the bomb plot was discovered.
Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank in Dubai, said it was appropriate for airlines to halt Yemen shipments given the circumstances. But he cautioned that al-Qaida in Yemen could try to shift its operations elsewhere to circumvent the embargoes. "The first layer is to isolate the Yemen case, then see what the impact is, and then decide if that (ban) needs to be expanded to other countries," he said. Interpol on Saturday released details and photographs of the two US-bound mail bombs to encourage police and the public to watch out for similar packages.
The police agency posted a four-page warning, where it listed a number of signs that indicate the packages should be treated with suspicion: unbalanced packaging; uneven weight; excessive use of sealing tape; stains, discoloration or other wrapping markings; strange odors; protruding wires; excess postage paid. Interpol said such explosives cannot be detected by using standard X-ray equipment, but noted that airport "puffer" machines, swab tests and bomb-sniffing dogs could help aid detection.