BALI, Indonesia – Indonesia's most violent Muslim extremist group announced Tuesday that it was disbanding, in what appeared to be the first sign that the government is cracking down on Islamic extremism following the deadly bombing of a Bali nightclub.
The announcement came as Indonesian officials interrogated a security guard and another man about the nightclub bombing, which killed nearly 200 people, and said traces of C-4 plastic explosive were found at the scene. Also, the accused ringleader of a separate extremist network, Jemaah Islamiyah, said he would submit to police questioning.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday they have no conclusive evidence of who committed the bombing. However, the sophistication of Saturday night's attack, notably the detonation of more than one explosion simultaneously, points to a strike by Jemaah Islamiyah, possibly with the aid of Al Qaeda, officials said.
American officials describe Jemaah Islamiyah as a surrogate of Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia.
The group that is disbanding, Laskar Jihad, has deep ties to Indonesia's military and has waged sectarian warfare against Christians on the outlying island of Ambon. But in recent months, as pressure grew on Indonesia from the West to take action against militants, the organization's activities have become an increasing embarrassment for the authorities in Jakarta.
Although Laskar Jihad has not been linked to the nightclub attack, its dissolution may be the first sign Indonesia is responding to the demand for action from the United States, Australia and other countries.
Disbanding the organization is one of the more politically simple tasks the government could take against extremism, given its military's implicit approval. But it was unclear whether some die-hard members might go underground and continue to wage violence.
Arbi Sanit, a political commentator, said the militants remained a potential threat.
"If they really return home, then it is good because at least one of the armed groups will be gone," he said. "But if they leave Ambon just to move to other trouble spots, that would be very dangerous."
Achmad Michdan, legal adviser to Laskar Jihad, told reporters in Jakarta, the capital, that the group was disbanding.
He insisted the move was unconnected to the bombing and was rooted in theological issues.
"It has nothing to do with the bombs. There was no pressure on us from the military," he said.
Efforts to contact Jafar Umar Thalib, the group's leader in Ambon, about 1,600 miles east of Jakarta, were unsuccessful. Laskar Jihad is blamed for the slaughter of thousands of Christians in a sectarian conflict in the Maluku islands.
Police in Ambon confirmed that about 500 members of the paramilitary group boarded a ship for Indonesia's main island of Java on Tuesday, after driving through Ambon in a huge convoy. They were accompanied by about 200 members of their families.
"They left on their own initiative. The government did not interfere," said Maluku Police Chief, Brig. Gen. Sunarko Danu Ardianto.
Another 1,500 fighters will depart by the end of the week, said Jamal, a Laskar Jihad official in Ambon who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Laskar Jihad, or Holy War Soldiers, was founded in early 2000. At the time, a top reformist general accused hardline army commanders loyal to former dictator Suharto of creating it to disrupt democratic reforms and prevent civilian control over the military.
Army leadership denied that, but refused an order by the then-president to act against the group, whose members were allowed to proceed to Maluku where a small-scale religious conflict had erupted in 1999 between Muslims and Christians.
Eventually, about 3,000 Laskar Jihad militiamen were brought into the archipelago. They are accused of mounting attacks on unprotected Christian villages, and were seen cooperating with the army units in attacks on Christian neighborhoods in Ambon.
As many as 9,000 people died in the conflict. A cease-fire has been in place in the province since February.
But as the Bush administration pushed to re-establish ties with the Indonesian military -- cut in 1999 after the army's destruction of East Timor -- Laskar Jihad's military connection was cited by congressional critics in Washington as proof that the generals continued to represent the main threat to Indonesia's fragile democracy.
The blast in Bali killed nearly 200 people, mostly foreign tourists, and led to international pressure on Indonesia to crack down on Al Qaeda terrorists and local allies blamed for the bombing. President Bush said Monday he planned to discuss the issue with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Saleh Saaf said the two witnesses saw a suspicious-looking man with a white plastic bag near the entrance to the Sari Club in Bali's Kuta resort area just before the blast.
Police have questioned dozens of people in connection with Saturday's bombing, though only two had information directly related to the attack, officials said.
The guard and another man were being "intensively interrogated," Saleh said. He denied reports they had been arrested.
The second man was the brother of a man whose identification card was found at the scene of the blast, intelligence officers said on condition of anonymity.
Bali was still struggling to cope with the dead, and Australia -- which lost dozens of citizens -- hired a U.S firm, Kenyon International, to transport the corpses home.
At Bali's main hospital, dozens of volunteers, from backpackers in sandals to local students, placed ice on corpses or loaded them into refrigerated containers in the tropical heat.
Indonesian soldiers guarded the morgue, where mourners placed dozens of wreaths.
The Southeast Asian nation was working with foreign governments to investigate the bombing, said Mohamad Abdul Hendropriyono, Indonesia's intelligence chief. "It is a very complicated task and is outside the ability of local hands."
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his government would seek to have Jemaah Islamiyah, a shadowy group with suspected links to al-Qaida, listed as a terrorist organization.
The suspected spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah said he would submit to police questioning.
Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is based in the Indonesian city of Solo, would travel to Jakarta on Wednesday to meet with police, said his brother and spokesman, Umar Bashir.
Bashir, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in the blast and blamed it on the CIA, planned to meet with police in connection with a libel case he filed against Time magazine, which published allegations that he was involved in other terrorist activities, his brother said.