ISLAMABAD - ISLAMABAD (AP) — Police are trying to determine whether five Americans detained in Pakistan had planned to attack a complex that houses nuclear power facilities, authorities said Saturday.
The young Muslim men, who are from the Washington, D.C., area, were picked up in Pakistan earlier this month in a case that has spurred fears that Westerners are traveling to the South Asian country to join militant groups.
Pakistani police and government officials have made a series of escalating and, at times, seemingly contradictory allegations about the men's intentions, while U.S. officials have been far more cautious, though they, too, are looking at charging the men.
A Pakistani government official alleged Saturday that the men had established contact with Taliban commanders and planned to attack sites in Pakistan. Earlier, however, local police accused the men of intending to fight in Afghanistan after meeting militant leaders.
The men had a map of Chashma Barrage, a complex that along with nuclear power facilities houses a water reservoir and other structures, said Javed Islam, a senior police official in the Sargodha area of Punjab province. He stressed that the men were not carrying a specific map of any nuclear power plant, but rather the whole of Chashma Barrage.
The detained men also had exchanged e-mails about the area, Islam said.
"We are also working to retrieve some of the deleted material in their computers," he said.
Pakistan has a nuclear weapons arsenal, but it also has nuclear power plants for civilian purposes.
It began operating its first nuclear power station with Canadian assistance in 1972. It has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the main international agreement meant to stem the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
China helped Pakistan build the nuclear plant at Chashma, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Islamabad. Work on a second nuclear power plant is expected to be completed in 2011.
Any nuclear activity in Pakistan tends to come under scrutiny because of the South Asian nation's past history of leaking sensitive nuclear secrets due to the actions of the main architect of its atomic weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan. But as militancy has spread in Pakistan, officials have repeatedly insisted that the nuclear weapons program is safe.
Pakistani police plan to recommend that courts charge the five men with collecting and attempting to collect material to carry out terrorist activities in Pakistan, police official Nazir Ahmad told The Associated Press. The punishments for those charges range from seven years to life in prison, he said.
Officials in both countries have said they expected the men would eventually be deported back to the United States, but charging the men in Pakistan could delay that process. Pakistan's legal system can be slow and opaque.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, Punjab province Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said the men had established contact with Taliban commanders. He said they had planned to meet Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and his deputy Qari Hussain in Pakistan's tribal regions before going on to attack sites inside Pakistan.
The nuclear power plant "might have been" one of the targets, Sanaullah alleged.
Police, meanwhile, have alleged the men intended to head first to Pakistan's tribal regions before joining the militant movement in Afghanistan. The detainees are accused of using the Facebook and YouTube Web sites to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan.
Police have also alleged that the men met representatives from the al-Qaida-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group in the southeastern city of Hyderabad and from a related group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore, but the groups turned the men away because they did not trust them.
The FBI, whose agents have been granted some access to the men, is looking into what potential charges they could face in the U.S. Possibilities include conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group.
The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment on the potential charges and would not say what efforts Washington was making to bring the men back. The five were arrested in Sargodha earlier this month, but are being held in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Pakistan officials have said those detained included two Pakistani Americans, two Ethiopian Americans and an Egyptian American named Ramy Zamzam who is a dental student at Howard University in Washington. The others were identified as Waqar Hussain, Aman Yamar, Ahmad Abdul Minni and Umer Farooq. Pakistani officials have given various spellings of their names.
Associated Press Writer Babar Dogar contributed to this report from Lahore.