| Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in a hospital in Solo, central Java. (Reuters)
Jakarta/Bali, Oct. 19 (Reuters): Indonesian police arrested a militant Muslim cleric today hours after the government issued emergency antiterror decrees aimed at giving authorities wide powers in the hunt for the perpetrators of last weekend’s Bali bombings.
Abu Bakar Bashir has been linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network and a regional group of militants in Southeast Asia. He denies any connection, saying he is just an Islamic teacher.
“He’s been captured and arrested. Temporarily, he’s still in the hospital in Solo. He’s sick and tightly guarded,” National Police spokesman Saleh Saaf said in Jakarta. Another official in Solo said Bashir was being held for 24 hours and his status would be reviewed on Sunday.
Bashir, who had been summoned by police for questioning in Jakarta today, entered hospital suddenly yesterday. Aides and doctors said he would be unable to travel to face questions over a bombing in the country in 2000. Police have said he was not being summoned over the Bali attack.
Neighbouring countries and the West have pressed Indonesia for months to move against Bashir, although Australia today warned his arrest might provoke a backlash from hardline groups.
Witnesses said about 300 of the cleric’s supporters, mostly Islamic teenagers from schools set up by Bashir, protested outside the hospital but later dispersed.
Saaf said there was “an order letter of capture and arrest” for the cleric, without elaborating.
Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said Bashir’s arrest could lead to a backlash from Muslim radicals, warning this was something “to be very wary of”. But defence minister Matori Abdul Jalil played down such concerns. “Radical Muslim groups in Indonesia are a minority so let’s not worry about a backlash or revenge,” he said in Bali.
More than 180 people, including a large number of Australians, died in last Saturday’s blasts outside Bali nightclubs packed with foreign tourists. Hundreds more were wounded in the carnage. As fears grow of more bomb attacks in the region following a number of deadly blasts in the Philippines, the US, Australia and Britain issued fresh warnings about threats to Westerners.
Australia said it had received intelligence that parts of the Indonesian capital might be bombed in attacks aimed at Westerners. It urged its citizens today to avoid certain areas.
“The nature of the specific threats in Jakarta is the threat of bomb attacks in those certain suburbs against Westerners,” Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
The US state department also issued a new warning of possible attacks against Washington’s interests across the sprawling archipelago and urged its citizens not to visit.
London extended its travel warnings to much of Southeast Asia, urging Britons to exercise “extreme caution in public places”. The US, Australia and Britain have also advised their citizens to consider leaving Indonesia and have begun evacuating nonessential embassy staff and family members.
With Indonesia under intense pressure to clamp down on Islamic militants, President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed emergency decrees just before midnight on Friday giving authorities wide powers to combat terrorism and investigate the Bali atrocity.
“Police can detain anyone strongly suspected of acts of terrorism based on initial evidence for as long as seven days,” the document said. For that and for longer detentions, the threshold of evidence required would be lowered from existing laws and the results of intelligence operations could be used.