Indonesia on high alert amid terror warnings

Saturday, December 24, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia deployed thousands of troops to guard churches Friday amid warnings that al-Qaida-linked militants were planning Christmas terror attacks in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Islamic groups also offered to help protect churchgoers.

Maj. Gen. Firman Gani, the Jakarta police chief, said Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists might use the holidays to retaliate for the death last month of bomb-making expert Azahari bin Husin. He was gunned down in a police raid.

His shadowy network is blamed for at least five suicide bombings targeting Western interests since 2002 that together killed more than 240 people.

It is also accused in Christmas Eve church bombings five years ago that left 19 dead.

"The terrorists have said they will use the momentum of Christmas and the New Year celebrations to carry out attacks," Gani told reporters, adding that there were also indications that Jemaah Islamiyah may be changing its tactics.

"They may not use a car bomb or explosives in bags any more," he cautioned. "They could be carrying small bombs that can be thrown at a building or into a crowd."

The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark warned their citizens that the terrorist threat was very high, and advised against unnecessary travel to Indonesia.

Most of Indonesia's 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith. Attacks against Christians, who form just 8 percent of the population, have increased amid a global rise in Islamic radicalism.

Despite the threats, many Christians said they would attend midnight mass and other celebrations as usual.

"I will be going to the church near my mother's house, where I have been (going) since I was a child," said Trade Minister Mari Pangestu, who is helping organize a massive national Christmas gathering early next week.

"Security will be very tight," she said, noting that 17,000 police officers were being deployed in Jakarta alone. Thousands more will be deployed in Bali and elsewhere in the nation.

Even more significant, Pangestu said, was the offer by 11 different Muslim-based organizations to deploy 7,000 guards at churches and other houses of worship.

"We welcome their help," she said.

Authorities have repeatedly warned that despite Azahari's death, Jemaah Islamiyah was still capable of carrying out attacks.

Dozens of bombs and maps found in his hideout in early November indicated the group was in the advanced stages of planning another strike, said Sjamsir Siregar, chief of Indonesia's intelligence agency.

Elsewhere, police found the videotaped confessions of three men who carried out the Oct. 1 Bali bombings, some of them laughing and saying they expected to go to heaven the next day.

Another hooded man warned the United States and its allies in the war in Iraq that they would be the target of more attacks.

The government responded by launching its first-ever campaign against hard-line interpretations of Islam -- something it shied away from doing in the past for fear of being seen as subservient to the United States.

Vice President Yusuf Kalla called on Islamic leaders to help.

And while Muslim groups have helped guard churches every year since the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings, some appeared ready to go even further this year.

The head of Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization invited Christians to use its schools, meeting halls and other buildings for their Christmas celebrations.

"We want Christians to be able to celebrate in peace, just as we are able to celebrate Muslim holidays in peace," said Dien Syamsuddin, of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, or religious scholars.

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