PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Authorities in Cambodia (search) said Wednesday that they closed a Saudi-funded religious school and arrested three foreigners with links to the terror group suspected in deadly bombings on the resort island of Bali (search).
The arrests, prompted by a tip from U.S. officials, came about two weeks before Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) is to attend a meeting of Asian-Pacific Cabinet ministers in Cambodia.
Police arrested a man from Egypt and two others from Thailand olim minority.
Officials said the men have links to Jemaah Islamiyah, an extremist group with ties to Al Qaeda that seeks to establish an Islamic state across Southeast Asia and is suspected in the Oct. 12 bombings in Bali that killed 202 people.
"This operation has foiled any attempts of terrorist activity" in Cambodia, said Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Investigators established that the suspects had links "with terrorism activities overseas," he said, without giving details.
The authorities closed the Islamic school, 15 miles north of Phnom Penh, and ordered the deportation within 72 hours of its 28 teachers and their 22 dependents, who are from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen and Egypt.
The school was run by a local Muslim group, Om Al Qura, that allegedly included the three terrorism suspects as members. The arrested men were identified as Abdul Azi Haji Thiming and Muhammad Jalaludin Mading of Thailand, and Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali of Egypt.
Police Gen. Sok Phal said the arrests were carried out "with cooperation and a tip from the United States."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praised the Cambodian government's actions.
"The United States has sought to work with the government of Cambodia on counterterrorism issues, including in financial law enforcement and information-sharing areas, as we have with other governments around the world," Boucher said.
In an interview with the state television network TVK, Sok Phal said several associates of the suspects fled Cambodia.
The "successful destruction of this organization" helped ensure security in Phnom Penh for June meetings of Cabinet ministers and other officials from 23 countries, including the United States, in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Most Cambodian Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic minority, who make up less than 5 percent of the country's 12.5 million people in the mostly Buddhist country.
Cambodia's government had said in the past that local Muslims have no active links to militant groups.
Oun Bunna, an investigating judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court who interrogated the three men arrested Sunday, said they were charged with international terrorism and links to Jemaah Islamiyah. If convicted, they face 20 years to life in jail.
The men were being held pending pretrial investigations that could take six months, Bunna said. He refused to disclose details about their arrests and alleged activities.
Sok Phal said authorities began watching the school about a year ago, but recently received indications of an operation so that "prevention was required."
He said police have been tracking money transfers between Saudi Arabia and the school, "which has links with [Jemaah Islamiyah] in Southeast Asia."
Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based expert on Islam, said it would not be surprising if Jemaah Islamiyah was operating in Cambodia.
"There's been a lot of speculation for some time that Cambodia was one of the possible places of refuge for JI members from Indonesia and Malaysia," she said.
But Jones, Indonesia project director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said it was unlikely there were direct links between the school and terrorists.