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Suspects in kidnapping of UK couple in S.Africa court

A South African court on Thursday remanded in custody a man and a woman accused of abducting an elderly British couple in a case with suspected links to the so-called Islamic State.

Fatima Patel and Sayfydeen Aslam del Vecchio are alleged to have snatched British holidaymakers Rod, 73, and Rachel Saunders, 64, both renowned botanists, in KwaZulu-Natal province last month.

The Saunders are still missing. Since their disappearance, 734,000 rand ($62,000) has reportedly been drained from the couple’s accounts and their Toyota Land Cruiser was found covered in blood.

Patel, 27, and Del Vecchio, 38, appeared briefly alongside Themba Xulu who faces lesser charges in connection to the case.

During the hearing in a gloomy courtroom in Verulam Magistrates, 30 kilometres (19 miles) north of Durban, all three were ordered to be held in custody. Their bail applications will be heard on March 6.

Patel wore an Islamic face covering and stood beside Del Vecchio who brought a Koran into court, the Times LIVE news site reported.

The pair, who face the more serious terrorism charges, are alleged to have hoisted an Islamic State flag in a reserve in the region where the Saunders disappeared.

Del Vecchio also faces a charge relating to activities on an extremist web forum.

Xulu was allegedly found to have mobile phones that belonged to the Saunders in his possession.

“We are yet to find them, the dedicated team is out there searching for them and we’ve established a joint operations centre which is operating 24-hours,” said spokesman for the elite Hawks investigation unit, Lloyd Ramovha, after the hearing.

Following the disappearance of the Saunders, who live in Kenilworth near Cape Town, the British foreign ministry warned that “terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in South Africa”.

“The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL). In February 2018, two South African-British nationals were kidnapped,” it said in travel advice for South Africa.

Daesh, ISIL and ISIS are alternative names for the so-called Islamic State.

The advisory said that some South Africans who had visited Syria, Iraq and Libya were “likely to pose a security threat on their return”.

“There’s also a threat from individuals who may have been inspired by terrorist groups, including Daesh,” it added.

The US and Britain warned in 2016 of the possibility of attacks by jihadist extremists in South Africa’s major cities.

The country has so far been spared the jihadist attacks that have struck several other countries on the continent.

“We do not have an imminent threat from terrorism in our country, our law and enforcement agencies remain vigilant,” said Ramovha.