Paris: Two suspected Islamist extremists from France have been arrested in Pakistan after meeting with a man accused of ties to al Qaeda, officials said on Thursday.
The Frenchmen, who have not been identified publicly, were arrested at a bus stop in the eastern city of Lahore in late January after going there from the airport with a man identified as Tahir Shehzad, a Pakistani intelligence official said.
Information from Shehzad led Pakistani agents to Umar Patek, an Indonesian al Qaeda-linked suspect detained on January 25, the official said. The Frenchmen had intended to travel with Patek to Pakistan`s North Waziristan region where al Qaeda`s top command is based, he said on condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately clear if the men were suspected of plotting a terror attack, but Western counterterrorism and spy agencies have been intensely monitoring the movements of suspected militants from their countries to Pakistan out of concern they could train there and return home to carry out attacks.
One of the French citizens is of Pakistani origin and the other is a convert to Islam, the Pakistani official said. France is home to Western Europe`s largest Muslim population, estimated to be at least five million.
A French counterterrorism official confirmed the arrests on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. France`s main spy agency, DGSE, and the Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment.
The French men are still in custody, the Pakistani official said. Pakistani intelligence agencies often hold people for months without trial, without ever formally confirming their detention or charging them.
The two French citizens appear to have been travelling to Pakistan to meet with an al Qaeda facilitator with the goal of going to Pakistan`s federally administered tribal areas for terrorist training, according to a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The French official said he would be "surprised" if either had links to Patek, however. His capture, which US officials say involved cooperation by the CIA, capped a 10-year manhunt and amounted to a major achievement in the fight against al Qaeda in recent years.
French officials say they believe no more than 20 to 30 militants from France are in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and its allies in the Afghan former Taliban regime have operations.
French officials have expressed concern that the border zone has become a new lure for Islamic militants in France who once were drawn to Iraq to fight against US-led forces who toppled Saddam Hussein — but now may be looking for anti-Western battlegrounds elsewhere.