WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- As many as a half-dozen men "of U.S. origin" have been captured in the tribal areas of Pakistan near Afghanistan and handed over to U.S. authorities in an ongoing operation to root out al Qaida terrorists and Taliban extremists, Pakistani sources told United Press International Tuesday.
The men, whose identities were not revealed, were taken prisoner by the Pakistani army following tip-offs by tribal chiefs, sources said.
"Yes, we confirm it," Zamir Akram, deputy chief of mission at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, said when asked about the arrests. "It is an ongoing operation.
"We have been arresting people and handing them over to the Americans," he said.
It was not known if the five or six men were already in the United States. The definition of "American origin" was also unclear.
The FBI, when asked about the handover, referred all questions to the Justice Department. The Justice Department was not immediately available for comment.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, together with FBI and Department of Defense officials, announced Monday the arrest and detention of New York-born Jose Padilla. Padilla, who allegedly received bomb-making training from al Qaida and was part of a conspiracy to plant a radiological bomb somewhere in the United States.
Al Qaida, the terror network of Osama bin Laden, is accused of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed about 3,000 people, and of earlier terror strikes, including the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
Padilla, who adopted the name Abdullah al Muhajir, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8 as he returned to the United States from Pakistan in a helter-skelter route that took him twice to Zurich, Switzerland, and once to Egypt.
U.S. officials Tuesday said Padilla was shadowed on his odyssey to Chicago by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials who even traveled on the same aircraft with him.
A Pakistani security official, speaking by telephone from Islamabad, told UPI "Padilla went to Europe where he met several of his contacts while FBI agents were watching him. They might have made some arrests in Europe too, but we don't know."
News reports indicate the journey took place over 1 1/2 weeks, but a U.S. intelligence source told UPI Tuesday it "was closer to a month."
"We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb' in the United States," Ashcroft said Monday.
"He traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and on several occasions in 2001, he met with senior al Qaida officials. While in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Padilla trained with the enemy, including studying how to wire explosive devices and researching radiological dispersion devices."
Officials said Padilla, who is believed to have visited Switzerland to get money for his operation, was coming to the United States on a reconnaissance mission, scouting out possible targets for the conventional bomb that would spew radioactive materials into the air.
Pakistani officials said they tipped the United States off to Padilla.