JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Seeking to calm a jittery public, government officials have cast doubt on reports that two South Africans captured along with a senior Al Qaeda (search) terrorist in Pakistan were plotting attacks on tourist sites in their home country.
Government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said the reports, confirmed by Pakistani officials Wednesday, were "aired with no credible evidence from our agencies or agencies in Pakistan."
South Africa (search) would be a surprising target, given the country's strong stand against the Iraq war and Israel's treatment of Palestinians. But a top police official claimed in May that authorities had foiled a plot to attack South African targets shortly before the country's April 14 elections.
The two South African men are believed to have arrived in Pakistan on a flight from the United Arab Emirates just days before their July 25 arrest, which followed a 12-hour gunbattle in the eastern city of Gujrat.
They greeted police with curses and promised an unending battle against President Bush and anyone who supports him, according to Gujrat Police Chief Raja Munawar Hussain. He identified the men as Feroz Ibrahim, believed to be in his 30s, and Zubair Ismail, in his 20s.
Hussain told The Associated Press that authorities found several maps of South African cities among the items seized after the raid, which also netted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (search), a Tanzanian with a $25 million bounty on his head for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"They had some terror plans for South Africa," Hussain said.
He had no details on the plans or the timing of an attack. But an intelligence official based in the eastern city of Lahore told The Associated Press that authorities believe the men wanted to target tourist sites in Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial center.
South African newspapers quoted unidentified security sources as saying that key landmarks were among the targets, including the JSE Securities Exchange, a stadium and shopping mall.
The Star and ThisDay also mentioned targets in other cities, including Parliament and another mall in Cape Town; the U.S. Embassy, government buildings and the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria; and the luxury British ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2, which has made stops in Durban and Cape Town.
Western diplomats were skeptical that Al Qaeda would target South Africa itself, suggesting that U.S. and British interests in the country would be more logical choices for attack.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy said they had no independent confirmation of the alleged plot and did not intend to step up security.
"I can honestly say there is not really a feeling of panic here at the embassy," spokesman Daniel Stewart said Wednesday. "But we recognize that it could happen. Nobody is safe from terrorism."
International fugitives have repeatedly exploited South Africa's porous borders and Al Qaeda suspects have obtained the country's passports, but this is the first time evidence has emerged of South Africans being recruited into the terror network.
The reports sent shock waves through South Africa, where until recently many considered their country immune from Al Qaeda attacks.
"This is stupid," said Rafiek Salie, a painter putting finishing touches Wednesday to a Parliament door frame. "Those guys should go fight their war in Afghanistan and Baghdad and leave the innocent people alone here."
South African government ministers expressed outrage at the reports during a routine Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
"The Pakistani authorities indicated that they do not have information reflected in the media today," said Netshitenzhe, the government spokesman. "If there were any such information, their counterparts in South Africa would be informed first and not the media."
He said the South African Embassy in Pakistan was still waiting for permission to visit the prisoners.
Vusi Mavimbela, National Intelligence Agency director general, confirmed there was no information that any specific installation in South Africa was being targeted by Al Qaeda or any other group.
In May, South African Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi announced that a number of foreign nationals with "evil intentions against this country" were arrested and sent home shortly before April 14 elections, leading to the arrests of suspected Al Qaeda members in Jordan, Syria and Britain.
Selebi did not elaborate. But two suspects who were later released told AP they were among eight people questioned about an alleged Al Qaeda plot to attack American and British targets during the election coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid.
The two strongly denied any such plot and no charges have been brought against them.