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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Suspected Terrorist Leader Is Questioned in Indonesia

Asia: Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir denies having ties to Al Qaeda. But he praises Bin Laden and accuses the U.S. of being the aggressor.

January 25, 2002|SARI SUDARSONO and RICHARD C. PADDOCK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A Muslim cleric accused of heading a Southeast Asian terrorist network was called in to police headquarters here Thursday to explain his activities and used the occasion to applaud Osama bin Laden.

Mobbed by reporters as he arrived at the police station, the white-robed Abu Bakar Bashir denied allegations that he is affiliated with Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and accused the United States of being the world's real terrorist.

In a statement to the media, the 63-year-old Indonesian called Bin Laden "a true Muslim fighter" and said Al Qaeda had been active in promoting Muslims' rights.

"I am not a member of Al Qaeda," he said. "However, I really praise the fight of Osama bin Laden, who has dared to represent the Islamic world to combat the arrogance of the United States terrorists and its allies."

Bashir, who spent four years in custody in the early 1980s for alleged anti-government activity, has been named by Singapore and Malaysia as a top leader of a regional terrorist network called Jemaah Islamiah that allegedly planned to attack American targets in Singapore, including the U.S. Embassy and sailors on leave.

Since December, Singapore has arrested 13 alleged members of the group while Malaysia has detained 22 and the Philippines five. During interrogation, some of the Singapore detainees identified Bashir as the overall leader of the group, authorities said. Two other Indonesian clerics also have been named as leaders.

The Indonesian government has moved cautiously, however, apparently fearful of a backlash if it arrested hard-line Muslims in the politically volatile country, which has the world's largest Muslim population.

The government's strongest action against Jemaah Islamiah has been to ask Bashir to come to Jakarta, the capital, from his home in Central Java province and meet with federal police investigators. He spent much of Thursday answering questions.

Bashir is a prominent cleric in the Islamist heartland of Central Java. He founded an Islamic school in the mid-1970s and was later targeted by the government of former dictator Suharto. After his release from custody, Bashir lived in self-imposed exile in Malaysia for 14 years, returning to Indonesia after Suharto was ousted in 1998.

Bashir is represented by 20 attorneys, although only half a dozen went with him to the police station Thursday. One lawyer said much of the police questioning focused on his activities during his years in Malaysia.

Evidence collected by the Singaporean authorities indicates that the nucleus of Jemaah Islamiah was formed more than a decade ago.

In an interview with The Times last week, Bashir said Jemaah Islamiah is merely a religious study group, not a terrorist organization. He said he had not been to Singapore or Malaysia in more than three years.

In his statement Thursday, Bashir charged that the United States was the world's leading violator of human rights and that it is trying to suppress Islam around the world. Members of Al Qaeda, he said, have not been convicted by an international tribunal, yet the United States has killed many of the group's members.

The United States and its allies "have slaughtered innocent people in Afghanistan and another million Muslims in other Islamic countries," he said. He did not specify where besides Afghanistan the alleged slaughter took place.

He accused the Western media of spreading pro-U.S. propaganda and charged that the United States had helped destroy the Indonesian economy by supporting the independence of East Timor.

"We hope the security apparatus, Indonesian police and Indonesian government, and also the elites of this country, will not be willing to let themselves become the U.S. terrorists' slave, who will just obey and follow the command of the U.S. terrorists," he said.

*

Special correspondent Sudarsono reported from Jakarta and Times staff writer Paddock from Singapore.

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