JAKARTA, Indonesia – Suspected Muslim militants detonated a car bomb Thursday outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, killing nine people and wounding 173 in a bloody strike at a key U.S. ally in the war in Iraq.
The blast – the first major attack attributed to Jemaah Islamiyah in more than a year – could influence elections in Australia, where the prime minister is running on a pro-American, anti-terror platform.
The bombing also comes just ahead of Indonesia’s presidential elections and two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
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The explosion left body parts and bloody corpses strewn across the busy thoroughfare and shattered windows in buildings 500 yards away. It gutted the Greek Embassy on the 12th floor of an adjacent building, slightly wounding three diplomats.
Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group linked to al-Qaida, purportedly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was punishing Australia for supporting the war in Iraq.
The statement was posted on an Internet site known for carrying extremist Islamic content, and its authenticity could not immediately be verified.
“We decided to call Australia to account, which we consider one of the worst enemies of God, and God’s religion of Islam,” the statement said. “Here we were able to call it to account today in Jakarta, where one of the mujahedeen (holy warriors) was able to execute a martyrdom operation with a car bomb in front of the embassy.”
The Internet statement also called on the Australian government to withdraw from Iraq and advised all Australians to leave Indonesia or face more violence.
Police said the bomb was likely the work of Azahari Husin, a reputed Jemaah Islamiyah member who has been on the run for three years.
No one in the heavily fortified Australian Embassy was killed, although several Australians and Chinese were wounded.
The bombing came less than a week after the United States and Australia upgraded long-standing travel warnings to their citizens in Indonesia, citing an increased risk of terror attacks on Western targets.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and the Aug. 5, 2003, suicide bombing at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people.
Australia, a key supporter of the U.S. war on terrorism, sent 2,000 troops for last year’s invasion of Iraq and still has more than 850 military personnel in the country. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan condemned the bombing in a statement issued in Pennsylvania, where President Bush was campaigning.
“This is yet another attack against civilized people everywhere,” the statement said. “We condemn this outrageous act. The president reaffirms our solidarity with the governments of Indonesia and Australia in fighting the global war against terrorism.”
Islamic extremists are believed to have tried to influence the outcome of elections elsewhere. They blew up commuter trains in Spain just before elections in March, killing 191 people. Days later, voters elected a Socialist administration that made good on its campaign pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has faced criticism over sending troops to Iraq – a decision his opponents say has made Australia more vulnerable to terror attacks.
“This is not a nation that is going to be intimidated by acts of terrorism,” Howard said after Thursday’s bombing.
Analysts were divided on how the bombing would affect Australia’s Oct. 9 election. Howard is considered stronger on national security than Labor challenger Mark Latham – who has pledged to bring the troops home before Christmas – and could benefit from the perception that Australia is under attack.
The bomb exploded shortly after 10:15 a.m. near the embassy gate, flattening a section of the steel fence and shattering windows in nearby buildings.
Police were investigating whether a suicide bomber triggered the blast.
“It was an enormous bomb. The enormity of the crater, the police truck outside has been blown to bits, it’s like the wind has been pushed out of you,” embassy media officer Elizabeth O’Neill told Australia’s Nine TV Network.
Bloodied victims lay sprawled and screaming in front of the embassy, as dazed survivors tried to find colleagues and relatives. A severed leg, human scalp and torso lay on the street among wrecked cars and motorbikes.
“I can’t find my family,” said one woman, Suharti, who had eight relatives working at the embassy. “I am terrified. I don’t know where they are.”
The dead included policemen, embassy security guards and passers-by. The wounded were mainly people who worked nearby and were cut by flying glass and debris.
One guard, Muhammad Amsor, said he was about to start work in front of the building when the bomb went off, killing a co-worker. “We have been trained to face bombings like this,” he said. “But I am still utterly shocked that it could happen.”
At the bomb site, national police chief Gen. Dai Bachtiar said the blast bore the hallmark of Jemaah Islamiyah.
“The modus operandi is very similar to other attacks, including the Bali bombings and the Marriott blast,” he said. “We can conclude (the perpetrators) are the same group.”
Bachtiar said the bombing was likely the work of Husin, a British-trained Malaysian engineer who is one of Asia’s most-wanted fugitives. Husin has been linked to numerous bombings in Indonesia, including the Bali blasts.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri cut short a trip to Brunei, where she was attending a royal wedding, and toured the bomb scene.
“I ask all the Indonesian people to unite in fighting terrorism,” she said. “Let us all condemn what has been done by (terrorists) because we have seen there are so many innocent victims.”
The attack comes in the run-up to presidential elections Sept. 20 in which Megawati is trailing badly in the polls behind her former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Terrorism is rarely mentioned by either candidate, both of whom are secular nationalists. Analysts say the bombing might benefit the challenger, who is seen as somewhat tougher on security.
Regional security consultant Bob Broadfoot said the militants wanted to make clear that they were able to carry out attacks.
“Governments in the region have done a pretty good job of restricting terrorist groups but that doesn’t mean that they have extinguished the problem,” he said. “That is what we saw today.”