WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush, trying to eliminate a major source of contention with allied nations, announced Friday that the United States is rescinding visa requirements for citizens of six European countries and South Korea.
Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the U.S. visa waiver program in about a month. Each of those countries allows U.S. citizens to visit without visas.
Some lawmakers worry that visa waivers could make it easier for terrorists to slip into the United States. All of the countries added to the list agreed to take specific steps, such as coming up with tamperproof, biometric passports that are difficult to forge.
``For years, the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines, pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States,'' Bush said at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. ``These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around. I told them I agree with them.''
In Prague, the Czech Republic prime minister was ecstatic over the news.
``It is really the biggest success we could achieve,'' Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said. ``It is a removal of the last relic of communism and the Cold War, so I am very happy.''
Jacques Barrot, the European Union's justice and interior affairs commissioner, said in a statement that he welcomes the development and looks forward to the quick admission of remaining EU countries to the visa-waiver program.
``The close ties between the EU and the USA will be further strengthened by this move toward secure, visa-free travel across the Atlantic,'' he said.
Bush also expressed support for efforts by Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania to win visa exemptions.
Before Friday's announcement, the visa waiver program included 27 countries, including most of Western Europe. Exclusion has been a sore point among some new NATO allies that have supported U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those countries, including Poland, did not make the new list because they could not meet admission requirements.
Bush said the seven countries added Friday agreed to share information about security threats to the United States, and their citizens would use a new system that requires travelers to register online ahead of their visits to the United States.