PARIS: Two suspected Islamist extremists from France have been arrested in Pakistan and detained for months after being met at an airport by a man with suspected ties to al-Qaida, officials said.
The French men have not been identified publicly and this was the first word of their arrest.
The men, including one with family ties to Pakistan, 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-Qaida linked suspect detained on Jan. 25, said the official. The French men had intended to travel with Patek to Pakistan’s North Waziristan region where al-Qaida’s top command is based, he said.
Like all Pakistani spies, he did not give his name out to the media.
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 official said. Pakistani intelligence agencies often hold people for months without trial, without ever formally confirming their detention or charging them.
The French official said he would be “surprised” if the two French citizens had links to Patek.
Western counterterrorism and spy agencies try to monitor traffic of suspected militants from their countries into Pakistan out of concern they could one day return home with the skills to carry out terror attacks.
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-Qaida and its allies in the Afghan former Taliban regime have operations.
One of the French citizens is of Pakistani origin and the other a convert to Islam, the Pakistani official said. France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated to be at least 5 million.