BANGKOK, Thailand -- Security forces said they arrested an Algerian-born British man who was about to fly to Europe with 452 French, Spanish, Belgian and Portuguese passports, and were investigating any possible links with terrorists.
After bomb attacks crippled London last month, Thailand upgraded its anti-terrorist patrols with increased security at Bangkok's foreign embassies, outdoor tourist venues and bustling international airport.
Thailand suffers a notorious reputation for easy access to illegal passports, visas, bank documents, currency, travelers cheques and other papers, often printed in Bangkok by sophisticated forgers who use high-tech equipment to replicate holograms, magnetic strips and other security features.
While searching a passenger identified as Maheiddine Daikh at Bangkok's international airport before dawn on Wednesday (Aug. 3) , police said they discovered 452 passports in his possession.
Daikh's own purported passport described him as a British citizen, 35, born in Algeria.
The pale, large-nosed man with thick eyebrows and thinning brown hair was displayed by police to journalists while he sat behind a table covered with the 452 passports arranged in about 20 stacks, so his photo could be published and aid the investigation.
Police described the passports as fakes, but it was unclear if the documents were illegally printed or had been acquired from foreign travelers either by theft or purchase.
Cash-hungry tourists occasionally sell their passports and then claim the documents were stolen, while others purchase illegal Western passports to gain employment in countries which bar developing countries' citizens.
Daikh reportedly said he bought the passports for about 40 U.S. dollars each from a Pakistani man in the tourist-packed, southern island resort of Koh Samui, and had hoped to sell the passports in London.
Thai authorities work closely with British, U.S. and other investigators based in Bangkok whenever they suspect passports or other documents discovered in Thailand may be used by terrorists or illegal visa applicants.
Europe-related activity in Bangkok's underworld is also a concern to American authorities because some people use illegal documents to travel to Europe and then on to the United States, according to U.S. government officials.
The most prized illegal passports are those from "visa waiver countries" such as Canada, which can be used by a traveler to enter America without a visa.
Best are passports with only a few visa stamps, because if the document has been heavily used, then the person who buys it has to invent a complicated story to account for months or years of foreign travel.
Thai investigators said counterfeiting and fraudulent identification papers in Thailand was traditionally dominated by Chinese gangs, but during the past several years Pakistani and Arab forgers have increased their presence.
There was no immediate indication that the 452 passports were linked to any terrorist network, but the documents could have been resold in London to virtually anyone seeking false identification.
Several years ago, U.S. government officials, working with their Thai counterparts, found printing presses in Thailand churning out an estimated 3,000 passports per customer, and capable of reproducing documents for any country.
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph /