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Terror explodes on paradise

Bali, Oct. 13 (Agencies): Till Saturday evening, this picture-postcard tourist paradise was counted among the world’s most popular holiday spots. But overnight, Bali has become the site of one of the world’s most devastating attacks on tourists.

At least 183 people were killed and hundreds injured as powerful explosions ripped through a nightclub packed with young foreign revellers on the Indonesian resort island last night.

The blasts triggered outrage and pressure on Indonesia to round up militants as the attack followed persistent reports that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network was trying to establish a foothold in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The attack came on the second anniversary of the al Qaida-linked strike on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen.

Bali, a predominantly Hindu island long considered a safe haven for tourists, attracts everyone from jet-setters to student backpackers. It is a particular draw for holidaymakers from Australia, a staunch ally of the US-led war on terror.

The explosions demolished the Sari Club and turned a throbbing strip of bars and discotheques near Kuta Beach – a magnet for surfers -- into a scene of bloody carnage.

Police said the victims included citizens of Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden. Among those missing were several members of rugby teams from Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia, who were all in Bali at the same time.

Asian neighbours have harshly criticised Indonesia, a moderate nation, for its reluctance to tackle Islamic extremists, despite evidence the al Qaida network has established a foothold in the sprawling archipelago.

“We would like to see a maximum effort on the part of the Indonesian government to deal with the terrorist problem within their own borders,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters after speaking to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri on telephone. “It’s been a problem for a long time,” he said.

Adding to the pressure on Jakarta, the US embassy said it was considering plans to start scaling back the American diplomatic presence in the country.

The US and Singapore, which has detained dozens of people in a crackdown on what it says is a Southeast Asian terror network, Jemaah Islamiah, have been pressing Indonesia to arrest Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir who they describe as a pivotal player in the group. But Indonesia had said there was no evidence to link him to the Jemaah.

Bashir today blamed the US for the attacks. “I think maybe the US is behind the bombings because they always say Indonesia is part of a terrorist network,” he said.

Megawati said the explosions were a warning that terrorism was a threat to national security. But she offered no clues on who authorities believed might be to blame. Accompanied by several ministers, Megawati visited the smoking ruins of the Sari.

Badly burned youngsters in T-shirts and sandals stumbled dazed in streets scattered with bodies, severed limbs and the twisted wreckage of cars.

Another bomb went off 50 metres from the honorary US consulate in Sanur, a tourist area about 30 minutes from Kuta. No one was hurt in that explosion.

Before dawn on Sunday, flames licked around the rubble of the Sari as tourists carried the injured away, many half-naked and moaning in pain.

Hanabeth Luke, a fair-haired 22-year-old from England, was mourning her boyfriend, a mechanic, killed as the two danced at the Sari. “I was dancing to Eminem, enjoying the flow, when I heard the first bang. Many people stood still, then there was the second. It was an incredible force of wind and heat,” she said.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent a condolence message to Megawati, condemning the “terrorist incident inspired by religious extremism”. Describing Bali as an island of peace, Vajpayee said: “It is a historic place. Last year, I was in Bali watching the beautiful coast. That beauty of Bali is sought to be destroyed by terrorism.”

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