Johannesburg: A 27-year-old Indian-origin woman and her partner, both allegedly linked to the ISIS terror group, have been arrested and charged with abducting a British couple, according to South African special police unit Hawks.
The missing Cape Town couple, whose names have been withheld by authorities, are understood to have been kidnapped while on holiday in near the Bivane Dam in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, on February 12.
Fatima Patel and Safydeen Aslam Del Vecchio also face charges of robbery and theft after they went on a spending spree using the couples credit cards, building up a stash of jewellery, camping equipment and electronic devices which were found at a remote location where an ISIS flag was being flown.
Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said that during surveillance of Patel and her partner, operatives had gathered information allegedly linking them to the British couple from Cape Town.
But police declined to provide any further information due to the sensitive nature of the case as the search continues for the couple whose vehicle was found abandoned over 300 kms away from where they were last seen on February 9.
The incident had prompted the British government to issue a travel advisory about possible terrorist attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa.
The weekly Sunday Times, quoting a charge sheet after their court appearance on February 19, reported that Patel and Del Vecchio, 38, also stand accused of hoisting an ISIS flag at a modest homestead in a rural area.
Del Vecchio also faces another terrorism-related charge for allegedly participating in extremist web forums that support ISIS and offering to supply phone numbers and SIM cards that are not traceable.
Yousha Tayob, the lawyer representing Patel and Del Vecchio, confirmed that the pair had appeared in the court and were remanded in custody at Westville Prison in KwaZulu-Natal province.
Patel and her brother Ebrahim Patel were previously arrested at their home in Azaadville in 2016 during police raids that also led to the arrest of Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie, twins accused of planning terrorist attacks at the behest of the Islamic State.
The Patel siblings appeared in court at the time on charges of possession of unlicensed ammunition and explosives. They were released on bail, news24.com reported.
Meanwhile, reacting to the UK government's travel advisory, local Muslim organisations have dismissed this as an "overreaction".
Ebrahim Deen of the Afro-Middle East Centre told the weekly that South African Muslims posed no threat to travellers and that the incident was more related to crime than an ISIS attack.
"Muslims are largely integrated in (South African) society, are not disillusioned and they face little discrimination like in Europe and elsewhere," he said.
Martin Ewi of the Institute for Security Studies said South Africa was regarded as a "logistics base" for terror cells in transit, and is not traditionally a target for attacks, although the arrests of Patel and Del Vecchio confirmed the presence of an active terror cell in South Africa.
"We in the counter terror fraternity suspected that they were working as members of an active cell, and the kidnapping will confirm the presence of an active IS cell," Ewi said.