Japan justice minister claims al Qaeda connection

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TOKYO, Oct 29 (Reuters) Japan's justice minister said on today that a friend of a friend was a member of al Qaeda and had entered the country on fake passports, but later said he had no evidence this was true.

In comments justifying a new system for fingerprinting foreigners entering the country, Kunio Hatoyama initially told reporters the man had been involved in a bomb attack on Bali. The minister said he had been warned to stay away from the Indonesian island for safety reasons.

Hatoyama later called a news conference and said he had only heard about the warning several months after the bombing in October 2002 that killed 202 people.

He nonetheless stressed the need for strict immigration procedures, saying he had tried, but failed, to confirm whether the man had entered Japan numerous times after the bombing, as his friend had said.

''I heard by hearsay that this person entered Japan two or three times so I told immigration officials that it was dangerous,'' Hatoyama said.

''But I was told that it was hard to look at tens of thousands of passports and see if they were all real or not,'' he added.

Hatoyama has been promoting a new system for fingerprinting foreigners at immigration set to start on November 20, which has sparked anger among the country's more than two million foreign residents.

Almost all non-Japanese will be required to give fingerprint scans and have digital photographs taken on arrival at Japan's international airports and ports from next month.

The new checks are based on the ''US Visit'' system introduced in the United States after the September 11 attacks. Hatoyama said Japan planned to check foreigners' fingerprints against international databases to seek out potential terrorists.

Hatoyama earlier today also expressed opposition to the pro-immigration stance of his predecessor, Jinen Nagase, who called for more foreign workers to make up the shortfall as Japan's population ages and shrinks.

''Japan is not a country that can become a 'melting pot', he said, arguing that allowing more foreign labourers into the country would lead to a rise in crime.

Reuters SKB GC1917

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