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Bali Blast Probe Intensifies

Indonesia steps up its search for suspects in the deadly bombing attack. President Megawati weighs a decree allowing detentions without trial.

October 17, 2002|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The search for suspects in the deadly bombing of Bali nightclubs intensified Wednesday as Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri weighed whether to issue an emergency decree that would allow the preventive detention of terrorist suspects without trial.

Megawati, whose government had long ignored warnings of a terrorist threat, is considering whether to bypass parliament and give police broad powers reminiscent of the military dictatorship that ruled the country until 1998.

Authorities contend that without a new anti-terrorism law, their hands are tied in combating attacks like the bombing that ripped through the two Bali nightclubs crowded with foreign tourists Saturday night, killing more than 180 people.

A senior U.S. diplomat said that several Americans have been missing since the bombing on the Indonesian resort island and that the number of Americans killed in the attack could rise to five or six. Officials have confirmed the deaths of two Americans.

Investigators are pursuing a theory that the attack was carried out by eight men who arrived at the site in two vans. One van, a Mitsubishi, carried the bomb and was destroyed in the explosion. Two of the men are believed to be Arabs connected with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Investigators initially thought it was unlikely that the bombing was a suicide mission, but one intelligence expert said that one attacker might have died in the blast. Authorities are now searching for seven men -- the two Arabs and five other people -- thought at one point to have been traveling in a blue Toyota Kijang van.

In the province of East Java, which can be reached by boat from Bali, police were examining the identification of arriving ferry passengers and checking suspicious cars on the highway. Police also stepped up security checks at the airport in Surabaya, the country's second-largest city.

Albert Sianipar, police chief of operations for the Sidoarjo district in East Java, said police had stepped up their inspections since the bombing and had begun using metal detectors to search cars along highways.

"We are checking to see if they carry weapons or explosives," he said. "We won't check all cars. But we will check suspicious cars and cars with more than three or four people."

Authorities said Wednesday that they have detained two suspects in Bali, including a Pakistani connected to an identification card found near the scene of the explosion. Police said the two were held after they were evasive in answering questions, but it is unclear what role they might have played in the bombing.

U.S. officials had been warning Indonesia for more than a year that terrorists were active in the country and could carry out a major attack on several possible targets. But the United States had no information about a planned attack in Bali and did not give Indonesia a specific warning of the bombing, the officials said.

Because of a continuing threat to Americans in Indonesia, the State Department has ordered family members and all nonessential personnel at the U.S. Embassy to leave the country in the next few days.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, American diplomats have been pushing Indonesia to take tougher action against terrorists.

The emergency decree under consideration here could give police a strong hand in dealing with suspected terrorists, but it could also touch off a backlash from Muslim activists and civil libertarians concerned that it would signal a return to the days of dictatorial rule.

The main target of the anti-terrorism provisions would probably be Jemaah Islamiah. Authorities in the region say the radical Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda has hatched a variety of terrorist plots in Southeast Asia, including last year's foiled plan to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Singapore and six other targets with truck bombs.

Singapore and Malaysia, which both have strong internal security laws, have detained a total of 98 suspected Jemaah Islamiah members, including five arrested Wednesday in Malaysia. Members of the group also have been arrested in the Philippines, but not in Indonesia.

Some of those held have identified the leader of Jemaah Islamiah as Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who lives freely in the province of Central Java. The Indonesian government has declined to arrest him, saying there is no hard evidence of his involvement in a crime. Bashir denies heading the group, which he contends does not exist.

Western governments suspect that Bashir, 64, may have been behind the Bali bombing, but he denies the charge. Instead, he claims that U.S. personnel and Israeli intelligence services carried out the attack to undermine Islamic groups and show that terrorists were operating in Indonesia.

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