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Indonesia on alert for Christmas terror attacks

Troops deployed amid warnings

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia deployed thousands of troops to guard churches and places where foreigners gather yesterday amid warnings that Al Qaeda-linked militants were planning Christmas terror attacks in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Major General Firman Gani, the Jakarta police chief, said Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists might use the holidays to retaliate for the death last month of bomb-making expert Azahari bin Husin, who was gunned down in a police raid.

Azahari's shadowy network is blamed for at least five suicide bombings targeting Western interests since 2002 -- including Oct. 1 restaurant attacks on Bali island -- that together killed more than 240 people.

It also is accused of Christmas Eve church bombings five years ago that left 19 dead.

''The terrorists have said they will use the momentum of Christmas and the New Year celebrations to carry out attacks," Gani told reporters, adding that there were indications that Jemaah Islamiyah may be changing its tactics.

''They may not use a car bomb or explosives in bags any more," he cautioned. ''They could be carrying small bombs that can be thrown at a building or into a crowd."

Gani said security was being bolstered at international hotels, shopping malls, and around the main business and embassy districts in the capital, Jakarta, as well as at beaches and other places frequented by tourists in Bali.

Foreign governments were not taking any chances. The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, and Denmark warned their citizens that the terrorist threat was very high, and advised against unnecessary travel to Indonesia.

Most of Indonesia's 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith. But attacks against Christians, who comprise 8 percent of the population, have increased amid a global rise in Islamic radicalism.

Despite the threats, many Christians said they would attend midnight mass and other celebrations.

''I will be going to the church near my mother's house, where I have been since I was a child," said Trade Minister Mari Pangestu, who is helping organize a national Christmas gathering next week.

''Security will be very tight," she said, noting that 17,000 police officers were being deployed in Jakarta alone. Thousands more will be deployed in Bali and elsewhere in the nation.

Even more significant, Pangestu said, was an offer by 11 different Muslim-based organizations to deploy 7,000 guards at churches and other houses of worship.

Muslim groups have helped guard churches every year since the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings.

''We want Christians to be able to celebrate in peace, just as we are able to celebrate Muslim holidays in peace," said Dien Syamsuddin, of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, or religious scholars.

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