ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Two South Africans captured along with a senior Al Qaeda terrorist were plotting attacks on tourist sites in their home country, Pakistani officials said yesterday, a surprising target for Islamic terrorism given the African nation's vocal stand against the war in Iraq and Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
South African officials cast doubt on reports of a terror plot, though this past spring a top South African police official indicated that authorities foiled plans to attack the country during its April 14 elections.
The two 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 a senior police official.
The South African suspects were identified as Feroz Ibrahim, believed to be in his 30s, and Zubair Ismail, in his 20s, said Gujrat Police Chief Raja Munawar Hussain.
Hussain said authorities seized several maps of South African cities in the raid, which also netted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian with a $25 million bounty on his head for the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
''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 said authorities believe the men wanted to target tourist sites in Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial center.
International fugitives have repeatedly exploited South Africa's porous borders, and Al Qaeda militants have obtained South African 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 terrorist attacks. South Africa, where some 2 percent of the 45 million population are Muslims, has been outspoken in its opposition to the Iraq war and its condemnation of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The Star, a Johannesburg daily newspaper, quoted unidentified police sources as saying that key landmarks were among the targets, including the Carlton Center shopping mall, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg; parliament and the V&A Waterfront mall in Cape Town; and the US Embassy, government buildings, and the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria.
Another Johannesburg newspaper, ThisDay, reported that the British Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner had also been a possible target when it stopped in Durban and Cape Town earlier this year.
Worried residents said they would be avoiding the places cited as potential targets.
''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 . . . going to go somewhere else."
But South African government ministers expressed outrage at the articles, which they said ''aired with no credible evidence from our agencies or agencies in Pakistan," according to government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe.