The growing threat of terrorist attacks against Britons left hundreds of travellers in limbo yesterday as the Foreign Office issued warnings against visiting any part of the east Africa region.
At the end of a week during which attacks in Saudi Arabia and Chechnya were linked to al-Qa'ida, a further attack was thwarted in Lebanon and Anglo-Dutch petrol stations were bombed in Pakistan, the British Government warned of a "clear terrorist threat" to its citizens in seven east African countries.
The warnings were issued on Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda. They came a day after Britons were advised against all non-essential travel to Kenya and British flights to and from the country were suspended.
Yesterday's Foreign Office notice did not advise British nationals against non-essential travel to Kenya's six neighbours, but they were warned to be on their guard, particularly in public places frequented by foreigners. The six countries are each described as "one of a number of countries in east Africa where there is a clear terrorist threat". This was upgraded from an earlier warning of an "increased threat" from terror groups.
The United States, Australia and New Zealand have also issued travel warnings covering countries including Malaysia and the Philippines.
And the US announced plans for officials to interview almost all visa applicants as part of its own crackdown on terrorism. Nine out of 10 people applying to visit, study or work in America will be required to meet embassy or consulate staff, the State Department said. But the policy will not affect tourists or UK business travellers.
East Africa has become one of the busiest theatres for al-Qa'ida activity. The US embassies in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, were bombed in 1998, killing 224 people. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who has been named as a leading al-Qa'ida militant, sparked the Kenya alert when he was spotted in Somalia. He is still at large, despite an intense hunt.
Kenya's National Security Minister, Chris Murungaru, said there had been a specific threat by al-Qa'ida against British Airways flights.
East Africa offers attractive targets for al-Qa'ida. It has a large Muslim population. Osama bin Laden found refuge in Sudan in the 1990s and the country provided bases for al-Qa'ida. Anarchic conditions in Somalia and Eritrea offered ideal refuges and training grounds while Kenya, with its links with the West and Israel, provided the targets. The region has been destabilised by a series of recent conflicts.
Mohammed, also known as Haroun, an explosives specialist, is regarded as one of al-Qa'ida's most effective operatives and the FBI has offered a $25m (£15.4m) reward for his capture.
American and British security officials are working with the Kenyans in the hunt for Mohammed, and a US security team in Sudan is said to be "actively involved" in gathering information. Security sources say the intelligence on the imminence of attacks, based on intercepts, is "roughly similar" in intensity to that before Monday's attacks on the expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which killed 24 people.
Mohammed is believed to have returned to Kenya last year to organise the attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa and the attempted shooting down of an Israeli airliner.
Passengers on the last British Airways flight to leave Nairobi before the ban spoke yesterday of their relief when they arrived at Heathrow More Britons were due to fly from Nairobi last night with Kenya Airways.