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Indonesia, terror's latest front

Jakarta's defense minister Monday linked the bombing in Bali to Al Qaeda.

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But Indonesia has been reluctant to act against the group and its alleged leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian preacher who lives openly in Central Java. He said at a Sunday press conference that he had nothing to do with the bombing. "I think this explosion was engineered by the United States ... because they always claim that Indonesia has a terrorist network."

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Advisers to Mrs. Megawati say Mr. Bashir has remained free so far because she fears an Islamic backlash against her government if she moves against the preacher, who has gained in stature with each accusation made by the US. America is unpopular in Indonesia because of its threats to go to war with Iraq and because of the war in Afghanistan.

Megawati, a secular nationalist, is viewed with suspicion by Indonesia's Muslim activists, and she and her advisers have feared taking action because it might leave her vulnerable to politicians like Hamzah Haz, her Vice President and the leader of the largest Muslim party in parliament.

Mr. Haz has in the past defended Mr. Bashir. After a cabinet meeting today he reiterated his stance "that Mr. Bashir has never been involved in terrorism." Asked who he thought had led the attack, he echoed Mr. Bashir by saying he thought it was politically "engineered," though he didn't say by whom.

But in recent months, Mr. Haz's terrorism denial has become an increasingly isolated position in the Indonesian cabinet, with intelligence chief Hendropriyono and Armed Forces Chief Endriartono Sutarto arguing for a tougher line.

Some observers said this might be an opportunity for Megawati to paint the Islamic political opposition as extremist and gain the support she needs to arrest those involved.

The Sari Club was a Kuta institution, a cheap beer-soaked hangout with the flags of 40 nation's hanging out front where young backpackers and surfers packed the dance floors every weekend. Intelligence analysts say that it's overwhelmingly Western clientele was not a coincidence: The bar has a foreigners-only policy.

Late last year Malaysia and Singapore arrested dozens of alleged militants with ties to the Indonesian network, and the Philippines has also jailed a handful of alleged members of the Jemaah Islamiyah.

Security officials in all three nations say they have provided Indonesia with transcripts of interrogations and other evidence that have shown terrorists are at work there, but little action has been taken.

The mostly Catholic Philippines has been a particular target of militant Muslim violence because of a civil war with Muslim insurgents on the southern island of Mindanao for the past 20 years. On Saturday, a small bomb blew up outside of the Philippines consulate in the northeastern Indonesian city of Manado, on Sulawesi island.

There are other serious problems for Indonesia's international relations. Australia is one of Indonesia's most important trading partners, and the two country's relationship was just getting over a rocky patch created by Australia's support for East Timorese independence.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a Sydney radio station on Monday: "We have a right, and I have a duty, to push upon and press upon the Indonesian government the need for a cooperative effort [against terrorism] in the region." Mr. Howard said the Australian Justice and Foreign Ministers would be flying to Jakarta this week to work on cooperative efforts with Indonesia to catch the killers.

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.