However, a Saudi official insists the move is not linked to the September 11 attacks in which 15 of the 19 presumed hijackers held Saudi passports.

  

"There is no link with the September 11 attacks," said Captain Firas al-Tuwayan, public relations chief at the Passports Department in Riyadh on Tuesday.

  

"We are keen on preventing forgery," such as the use of stolen or forged Saudi passports by "terror" suspects, "but this is not the main reason why we changed the documents," he said.

 

Replacement

  

Al-Tuwayan said authorities had started phasing out old passports and replacing them with the new electronically readable ones around two years ago "in an attempt to facilitate travel procedures. It is a move toward e-government," which will be extended to residence documents.

  

Planning for the introduction of laser-readable passports began in 1999, and citizens were informed six months ago of the deadline for the cancellation of the old documents, he added.

  

The daily Arab News on Tuesday reported an announcement by the Passports Department to the effect that passports issued before 2002 were no longer valid.

  

The new passports, first introduced two years ago, will continue to be issued free of charge unless the old passport has expired, it said.