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Singapore says sorry after terror group leader escapes, massive manhunt launched

Singapore says sorry after terror group leader escapes, massive manhunt launched

The Singapore government apologized Thursday for a rare security lapse after an alleged Islamic terror leader escaped from jail, triggering a massive manhunt across the island nation for a man who walks with a limp.
Authorities said Mas Selamat Kastari, who once allegedly plotted to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore's international Changi airport, slipped away from a detention center Wednesday. Mas Selamat is said to be commander of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah's Singapore arm.
Minister of Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said Mas Selamat escaped after being taken from his cell to go to a room to wait for his family who were scheduled for a visit.
Mas Selamat, 47, was granted permission to visit the washroom and then escaped, Wong said in Parliament.
"This should never have happened," said Wong, who is also the deputy prime minister. "I am sorry that it had. An independent investigation is under way and we should not speculate on what and how it happened."
Security breaches are virtually unheard of in Singapore, a small and densely populated island whose sophisticated intelligence system has been liberally used to ensure order and safety.
Among its biggest success was pre-empting alleged plots to bomb the U.S. Embassy, the American Club and government buildings in 2001 _ schemes in which Mas Selamat allegedly had a hand.
Singapore, a close ally of the United States, was named an al-Qaida target in a transcript from alleged al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohamed's Combatant Status Review Tribunal, held last year at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement that Mas Selamat fled the Whitley Road Detention Center in a wooded residential area in central Singapore. It said he walks with a limp.
"Extensive police resources have been deployed to track him down," the statement said. Mas Selamat was not known to be armed, but Wong said he was a security threat.
A security blockade spread out around the detention center. The facility _ guarded by elite Nepalese Gurkha guards _ is enclosed by high fences topped with barbed wire. It has closed-circuit television surveillance cameras around its perimeter.
Thousands of police officers and military personnel set up roadblocks to check passing cars. Dozens of riot police and military trucks parked along main roads.
The Gurkhas fanned out in the snake-infested forest nearby, checking vacant bungalows and peering down drains and back alleys of private housing estates.
Students arriving for class at a nearby girls' school were ushered through the gates by teachers and parents to an assembly hall where a school official told them "not to roam around."
Security was tightened at the city-state's land, air and sea entry ports, Wong said.
It takes less than an hour to drive from one end of Singapore to the other. The affluent, highly modernized Southeast Asian country is only a short boat ride from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesian security officials said they would work with Singapore to prepare for the likelihood that Mas Selamat might attempt to come over.
Mas Selamat "would think Indonesia is the safest place" where it would likely be easier to hide, said Nasir Abbas, a former Jemaah Islamiyah operative who now works closely with Indonesian police.
Malaysia's police chief Musa Hassan said his forces were on the lookout and have informed border authorities, but have made no other special arrangements to tighten border security.
"We have not received any special request from Singapore as yet," Musa said. "We have not sighted him yet."
Singapore's Home Affairs ministry said Mas Selamat's plane hijack plot was in retaliation for the country's arrest and detention of some of his fellow Jemaah Islamiyah members in a crackdown on the militant group's operatives here.
The alleged schemes were never carried out.
Mas Selamat fled Singapore in December 2001 following the arrests of 13 other suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members.
The ministry's Web site said Indonesian authorities detained him in February 2003 on charges related to possession of falsified identification documents. They deported him to Singapore in February 2006, the ministry said.
Mas Selamat, said to be a father of four, had since been held in custody under Singapore's Internal Security Act that allows indefinite detention without trial.
Since 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for a series of terror attacks that have killed more than 250 people, most of them in Indonesia. Scores of its suspected operatives have been arrested across Southeast Asia since 2000.
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Associated Press writers Julia Zappei in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Chris Brummitt and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-12-03 03:34 GMT+08:00