Indonesia on watch for church attacks

Large number of security personnel put on high alert amid fears of bombings in outlying areas during festive season.

Thousands of Indonesian security forces went on heightened alert against church bombings as intelligence officials warned yesterday of possible sporadic attacks over the holiday season.

Intelligence sources told The Straits Times that while they did not expect an outbreak the likes of the Christmas Eve bombings two years ago, in which 19 people died, there could be scattered attacks in outlying areas over the next few days.

A senior official from the state intelligence agency (BIN) said that the threat assessment for Jakarta and Java was ‘lower’, given that police had stepped up security in these areas by guarding churches and monitoring other public installations.

‘But that does not mean that we are safe,’ he said. ‘There are concerns that the provinces in eastern Indonesia and Sumatra could be vulnerable to some kind of attack, given that there are large pockets of Christians in some of these provinces.’

He noted that several terrorist ringleaders had used these areas to plan their operations and, despite the wide-scale arrests over the last two months, extremist cells were still intact throughout Indonesia.

Many of the Jemaah Islamiah’s top leaders were on the run but still in touch with their foot soldiers, he added.

Sources said President Megawati Sukarnoputri had ordered her security chiefs to keep their personnel on high alert in the festive season.

Police have been keeping a close eye on several churches in the capital. More stringent checks on visitors are also being carried out by security guards at nightspots and office and residential buildings.

In a show of solidarity, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Confucian leaders in the Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace issued a joint statement yesterday rejecting terrorism.

At the same time, members of the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, prepared to go on patrols and protect churches in North Sulawesi province.

An inter-religious group of youths planned to do the same for churches in the South Sulawesi city of Makassar, said local reports.

But intelligence sources concede that it is impossible to ‘cover all ground’, given the pervasive reach of the terrorist network in Indonesia.

Said the BIN official: ‘For every militant we catch, there are one or two more who are still lying low, preparing to carry out reprisal attacks.’

The mass troop deployment follows revelations that Islamic radicals behind the recent bombing of a McDonald’s outlet and a car dealership in Makassar were planning more attacks that were to peak on Christmas Eve.

The United States, Australia and Britain have issued warnings in recent days about possible attacks during the Christmas season.

But such travel advisories to avoid Indonesia have not gone down well in Jakarta, already smarting from the fallout of the Bali bombings. Responding to comments that the latest travel warnings were based on credible information, Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said: ‘If that is the case, we should be given this information so we can take the necessary steps …

‘Not only are we a victim of the original act of terrorism, now, we are also a victim by being isolated this way.’

DANGER ZONES:

There are concerns that the provinces in eastern Indonesia and Sumatra could be vulnerable to some kind of attack, given that there are large pockets of Christians in some of these provinces.’
– Senior official from Indonesia’s state intelligence agency (BIN)

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