SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the escape of a suspected Muslim terror leader from a Singapore jail as a setback to the reputation of the usually well-policed city-state, but said Sunday he was confident the fugitive would be captured.
Lee, making his first comments on Mas Selamat Kastari's Feb. 27 escape from the high-security jail, said the jailbreak was not good for Singapore's reputation. Mas Selamat is accused of plotting to hijack a plane and crash it into the Singapore's international airport.
"The escape is undoubtedly a setback, and it should never have happened," Lee told reporters, according to the online edition of The Sunday Times newspaper.
Lee reiterated the government's position that Mas Selamat's escape from the detention facility was due to a security lapse that was currently being investigated.
"I don't think we are just like any other place where you can have television sets and (cell phones) and other things in jail," he said. "We are different. This was a lapse."
Authorities say Mas Selamat, 47, had been taken from his cell to a room where he was waiting for his family to make a scheduled visit. He fled after being granted permission to visit the washroom.
The country's security agencies have deployed hundreds of personnel to search for Mas Selamat, and border controls at all entry and exit points have been tightened.
Officials have voiced concern that he may have fled to nearby Indonesia, where he allegedly has ties with the al-Qaida linked Jemaah Islamiyah network, but Lee said he believed Mas Selamat was still in Singapore and that his security forces would capture the fugitive.
"I've been talking to the ministers responsible and I think we have a pretty good chance of catching him provided he's still in Singapore," Lee said. "We have no reason to think that he has left."
Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, the country's founding leader, said Mas Selamat's escape was a "very severe lesson in complacency" for Singapore, The Straits Times newspaper reported Saturday.
The elder Lee, who still wields considerable influence as minister mentor in his son's Cabinet, warned citizens to brace themselves for an attack led by Mas Selamat if he should link up with militants in Indonesia.
"If he can get into Indonesia, he has his old networks, then we have to watch out for a return hit sometime," Lee said.
Security breaches are virtually unheard of in tightly policed Singapore, a tiny island nation of 4.5 million people that is a 45-minute boat ride from Indonesia.