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Indonesia Arrests Cleric in Bombings

Abu Bakar Bashir is taken into custody a day after being hospitalized, signaling the country is willing to move against terrorism.

October 20, 2002|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, accused of heading a terrorist network in Southeast Asia, was arrested Saturday for his alleged role in a series of deadly church bombings and a plot to assassinate President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The arrest, after months of pressure from the United States, signaled a new willingness by Indonesia to crack down on suspected terrorists, although it remains to be seen how seriously the government will pursue other suspects.

Authorities say Bashir is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, a group seeking to create an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Singaporean officials say that the organization has close ties to Al Qaeda and that several of its members were trained at the terrorist network's camps in Afghanistan.

Authorities suspect that Jemaah Islamiah had a role in a car bombing last weekend outside two nightclubs on the island of Bali that killed more than 180 people, but Bashir has not been charged in that case.

Bashir, who served three years in prison for anti-government activities during the rule of former President Suharto, says he has never been involved in terrorist activities. He denies that he is the leader of Jemaah Islamiah and contends that the group does not exist.

Bashir was placed under arrest at a hospital in the Central Java city of Solo where he was taken Friday because of what aides said was exhaustion and respiratory problems. He had agreed earlier to report to the police for questioning.

Police doctors examined Bashir and determined that he was not suffering serious health problems, said Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf, the national police spokesman.

"The police don't believe he is sick," Saaf said. "He might be pretending."

It was unclear how long Bashir would remain in the hospital and whether he would be taken to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, for questioning.

Many of the victims of the Bali bombing were Australian, and on Saturday, President Bush offered Australia his condolences in a taped speech broadcast there.

"Together we face an enemy which does not value innocent life, an enemy which tries to terrorize the free world into inaction," Bush said. "They will fail. Together we will hunt down the killers so that there's justice in the world. Together we will fight terror so as to keep the peace and to make the world more free."

Bashir's alleged role as the head of Jemaah Islamiah emerged in January after authorities in Singapore and Malaysia broke up a suspected suicide-attack plot targeting seven sites with truck bombs, including the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. Suspects arrested in both countries identified Bashir as the leader of the group.

Bashir has appeared to relish the attention, giving interview after interview in which he promotes radical Islam.

Police accuse Bashir of helping to mastermind a series of nearly simultaneous church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000 that killed 19 people in cities across Indonesia.

He also is accused of playing a role in a botched plot to assassinate President Megawati last year with a bomb planted in a shopping mall.

In addition, Bashir is charged with having a role in the 1999 bombing of the Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta's most important, in the hope that blame would fall on Christians and spark religious conflict.

The charges are based mainly on the statements of Omar Faruq, a confessed Al Qaeda member who was apprehended by Indonesian intelligence agents in June and quietly turned over to the United States. After Indonesian police officials interviewed Faruq in the U.S., they returned to Indonesia last week and brought charges against Bashir.

Adang Syafaat, the executive secretary at the Istiqlal mosque at the time of the bombing, said that it is hard to believe that a Muslim could have bombed a mosque and that he doubts Bashir is guilty. But he said whoever has been carrying out bombings , especially the one in Bali, should be caught and punished.

"It means there is a person who wants to destroy this Republic of Indonesia," he said. "If the police find him, whether he is Indonesian or Muslim or even a cleric, he should hang."

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