CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Reports that Al Qaeda (search) is targeting major tourist sites in three cities sent shudders through South Africa on Wednesday, with some worried residents saying they would be avoiding the places in future.
South African officials sought to allay the fears, saying the reports that appeared in two Johannesburg newspapers were baseless.
Among the possible targets identified by The Star and ThisDay, two Johannesburg dailies, were the British Queen Elizabeth 2 (search) ocean liner, Cape Town's Parliament and V&A Waterfront shopping mall, the JSE Securities Exchange (search) in Johannesburg, and the U.S. Embassy and Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria.
"It's madness," said Doreen Butler, 42, as she left a grocery store at the V&A Waterfront. "I usually shop here, but after today I'm rather going to go somewhere else."
The articles, which cited unidentified police and security sources, appeared after the arrests of two South Africans in a July 25 raid in the eastern Pakistan city of Gujrat (search) that also netted a top Al Qaeda fugitive.
A Pakistani intelligence official told The Associated Press the suspects planned attacks against tourist sites in Johannesburg, and Gujrat police commissioner Raja Munawar Hussain said authorities had found several maps of South African cities among the items seized following a 12-hour gun battle.
"I'm scared that we could be victims of our own Muslim brothers," 62-year-old Noor Samsodin said at the V&A Waterfront on Wednesday. He wondered how he would explain to his granddaughter why he won't be bringing her to see the boats there any more.
"It is not right to fear for your life in a free country like this," he said.
Officials at the JSE Securities Exchange said they were considering stepping up security.
"We are not ignoring the fact that our name appears in lights and we are not taking it lightly," said spokesman Geoff Rothschild.
But despite the stated fears, it was business as usual at the identified sites.
Crowds of shoppers filled the Waterfront, and security guards said they had received no special instructions.
U.S. Embassy officials in Pretoria said they were trying to verify the source of the reports and had no immediate plans to step up security.
"I can honestly say there is not really a feeling of panic here at the embassy," said spokesman Daniel Stewart. "But we recognize that it could happen. Nobody is safe from terrorism."
British High Commission spokesman Nick Sheppard said the Queen Elizabeth 2 was afforded the normal level of security when it stopped in South African ports.
Parliamentarians attended the usual round of committee meetings and there was no sign of increased security.
"I'm a strict Muslim, but this is stupid," said Rafiek Salie, a 25-year-old painter putting the finishing touches to a Parliament door frame. "Those guys should go fight their war in Afghanistan and Baghdad and leave the innocent people alone here."