JAKARTA, Indonesia – A radical Indonesian Islamic cleric, accused of being a key terror suspect in the world's most populous Muslim nation, flatly denied responsibility Monday for a massive nightclub bombing that killed 188 foreign tourists in Bali.
"All the allegations against me are groundless. I challenge them to prove anything," said Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that other governments insist is linked to the Al Qaeda terror network.
"I suspect that the bombing was engineered by the United States and its allies to justify allegations that Indonesia is a base for terrorists," he told The Associated Press in telephone interview from Solo, a city in central Java.
Indonesia's defense minister, Matori Abdul Djalil, blamed Al Qaeda for the attack, saying the government was "sure" of its involvement. But he presented no evidence to back up the charge.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has identified Jemaah Islamiyah as the prime suspect. Many of the dead and wounded were Australian vacationers.
Jemaah Islamiyah allegedly plotted a series of bomb attacks against the U.S., British and Australian embassies last winter and other Western targets in neighboring Singapore.
According to U.S. security officials, Jemaah Islamiyah resembles Al Qaeda in its organization and like Al Qaeda, operates across international boundaries. The group, which seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, is believed to have cells in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand.
The United States has been seeking to enlist Indonesia as a partner in the war on terror. The country has arrested several suspects and shared intelligence, but ignores U.S. calls for the arrest of other suspected terrorists, including Bashir.
Indonesian police declined to say Monday whether any action would be taken against Bashir.
"We are still investigating. I cannot saying anything about anyone, including him," said national police spokesman, Maj. Gen. Saleh Saaf.
In the past, Bashir has denied that he is a terrorist or has links with terrorism. He has warned that jailing him would provoke the ire of many Muslims, who make up about 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people.