US issues visas to dead pilots of hijacked jets

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A gaffe by American immigration officials involving the posthumous granting of student visas to two terror pilots who flew commercial airliners into New York's twin towers last September drew an angry reaction from President George Bush yesterday. He ordered an immediate inquiry.

The flap began after the director of a Florida flying school revealed that he had received letters on Monday from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, INS, confirming that student visas had been granted to Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi. The letters arrived six months to the day after the twin tower attacks.

Red-faced officials at the INS said the decision to grant the student status to the two men – believed to have been at the controls of the two planes that struck the World Trade Centre – was taken last summer. They admitted the notification letters, sent by a contractor, should not have reached the school so late.

A White House spokesman said President Bush was "very displeased" by the affair and was asking Tom Ridge, his home director, to "get to the bottom of this" as quickly as possible.

Anger was also expressed in Congress. "I am astonished that while the INS is fixated on detaining and rounding up countless Arab-Americans without any justification, it has failed to take basic steps to ensure that visas are not issued to known terrorists," said Rep John Conyers, a Democrat.