- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

NAPLES, Fla. Three men of Arabic descent were pulled over and detained for 17 hours yesterday after a woman reported overhearing them talking about a terrorist plot.
But authorities said the men apparently were kidding around and released them.
Afterward, the three drove to a rest stop, where they told reporters they were medical students heading to Miami for training and denied making any comments or jokes about terrorism. Police declined to say what the men told them during questioning.
"If this was a hoax, they will be charged," Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter said angrily after an all-day search of the men's two cars turned up no sign of explosives.
Authorities said one of the cars ran a toll booth, but they did not say what charges, if any, the men might face.
"Not withstanding whether it was done in jest or if it was done on purpose, the result is the same," said Tim Moore, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "A lot of Floridians were in a state of alert and we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to do what we had to do."
The cars were stopped after a woman at a Calhoun, Ga., restaurant reported overhearing three men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent making "alarming" comments during breakfast Thursday, said Mickey Lloyd of the Georgia Department of Public Safety.
The Miami Herald, citing unidentified federal investigators, said the men were playing a joke on a patron who gave them a suspicious look.
According to authorities, one of the men said Americans "mourned on September 11 and they are going to mourn again on September 13." They also said the target of "possible terrorist activities" was in the Miami area.
Georgia officials issued an alert based on the woman's report and the cars were stopped at 1 a.m. after one went through the Interstate 75 toll booth east of Naples, authorities said.
The men, who were not identified by officials, were detained in a van while authorities used dogs and a robot to go through the cars.
Gov. Jeb Bush and a federal law enforcement official in Washington later said the men had no apparent link to terrorism. The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the men appeared to be medical students going to a medical conference in Miami.
The official said the men's nationalities are Jordanian, Iranian and Pakistani. Authorities said one is a U.S. native, another a naturalized citizen and the third has a valid visa.
Relatives of the men criticized the investigation, suggesting the three were singled out because of their Middle Eastern backgrounds. One was identified by his father as Omar Chaudhary, 23, who was born in Detroit to Pakistani immigrants.
"I don't know what the lady in the restaurant heard or assumed. She must have had some kind of prejudice," Javed Chaudhary said from his home in Kansas City, Mo. "My son was born and raised here. I feel like we don't have freedom here anymore. Anybody can call anybody to make any kind of accusation. And the authorities treat you like you are a criminal."
Hana Ghaith of suburban Chicago also said she didn't believe the reports about her brother.
"My brother doesn't joke about these matters," she said, her voice at times shaking with anger. "A lot of Muslims suffered on September 11."
The woman who reported the comments is Eunice Stone of Cartersville, Ga., who told Fox News Channel that she was eating at a Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun when she heard the men talking.
"I thought anybody that's laughing about September 11, I know they have that right, but there's something wrong with them," Miss Stone told Fox. She later told the Associated Press the incident was "kind of scary."
Neighbors in Calhoun, a town of 10,000 in rural north Georgia, said they were proud of Miss Stone for calling authorities.
"I appreciate someone like her with the courage to do it," said neighbor Eric Finch. "For anyone to sit around and joke over a cup of coffee about a couple of thousand people being killed they should be prosecuted just for that."
Mr. Bush said the information that triggered the threat came from credible witnesses.
"Making a mockery or laughing about September 11 and saying 'If you thought September 11 was bad, wait until you see what happens on September 13th' gives us all some concern," he said.
John Solomon in Washington and Brendan Farrington in Miami contributed to this report.

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