-- U.S. border agents have arrested 179 people under rules adopted on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that mandate the fingerprinting of travelers requiring visas, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said today.

Ashcroft told reporters at the U.S.-Canada crossing point overlooking Niagara Falls that those arrested were felons who fled the United States after committing an offense on a previous visit, people with a serious criminal record or those attempting to enter the country under false pretenses.

He said that before Sept. 11, "our borders did not have an efficient system to protect us from enemies treading on American soil" and that the new program tracked the whereabouts of people going in and out of the United States.

Under the system, a visitor is fingerprinted when he arrives at a land, air or sea port. The print is then matched against the FBI's criminal and other wanted-persons databases and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service database of suspected terrorists.

"For the first time we have an understanding of when people enter or exit," Ashcroft said. He said the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System could be applied to find nonresidents "who may pose an elevated security risk" and register them.

Ashcroft said that, of 14,000 people checked under the new system throughout the United States, 179 from 112 countries had been arrested.

The system has been controversial in Canada, where the government pressured Washington to exempt Canadians born in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan from being fingerprinted and photographed before entering.

Washington has placed those five countries on a list of those it accuses of supporting terrorism.

The new fingerprinting system was primarily designed to keep track of the movements of people from those five countries, but Ashcroft said today that in terms of the origin of visitors, no country was exempt.