TUNIS – Controversial security measures taken by the United Arab Emirates against Tunisian women trying to travel to the Gulf state were prompted by fears of a terrorist attack, Tunisia said Monday.
Since Friday, Tunisian women and girls have been delayed for hours as they look to board planes for the UAE, sparking outcry in the North African nation that led to the suspension of Emirates airline flights to Tunis.
"The UAE authorities have serious security information about the possibility of terrorist attacks," Tunisian presidency spokesperson Saida Garrach told Shems FM radio.
The information indicates that with jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq, there is "a possibility of a terrorist attack involving either Tunisian women or women carrying a Tunisian passport," Garrach said, suggesting that they could be using false identities.
UAE carrier Emirates has received "clear instructions" to deny Tunisian women access to its planes, she added.
Passengers said the only explanation they were given by airline staff was that women holding Tunisian passports were not authorised to travel to the UAE.
The Tunisian authorities said they had been forced to intervene several times in the past few days to help their nationals in Tunis as well as in Abu Dhabi and Beirut.
In response, Tunisia on Sunday halted Emirates flights between Tunis and Dubai.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a statement, called for the rights of Tunisian women not to be violated "whatever the justification".
But he also instructed his foreign minister, Khemaies Jhinaoui, to "work to overcome these problems as quickly as possible to preserve fraternal relations and cooperation" with the Emiratis.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on Sunday blamed the delays on "security information that necessitated taking specific procedures".
"We highly value Tunisian women and respect them," he said on Twitter.
But Tunisian official Garrach insisted that while her country could understand the UAE's concerns, it cannot "accept the way Tunisian women have been treated".
Tunisian rights groups have condemned the UAE measures as "discriminatory and racist".