Indonesian Police Force Prepare for Holiday Bombings

JAKARTA - Nearly two thirds of the entire police force in Indonesia went on alert as Christians in the world's largest Muslim-populated nation prepared to celebrate Christmas under the shadow of a continuing terror threat.

Already this Christmas Eve, a bomb exploded in the religiously divided Poso district in Central Sulawesi. A passenger spotted the bomb under a bus seat in the town of Poso in Central Sulawesi. The driver moved it to a field at Lembomawo village on the town's outskirts but it exploded on Tuesday before a police bomb squad arrived.

"The bomb was aimed at provoking a riot in Poso," local police chief Abdi Dharma was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying.

Jakarta police and the US embassy have warned of a high risk of seasonal terror attacks from the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Several top JI operatives are still on the run and believed to be planning further attacks.

On Christmas Eve three years ago JI launched coordinated bomb attacks on churches and priests nationwide, killing 19 people.

In a series of attacks since then, the network's targets have included more churches; two Bali nightclubs in October 2002 with the loss of 202 lives; and a Jakarta hotel where 12 people were killed in August.

"We cannot ignore the warnings or rumors and it is, anyway, always better to anticipate problems," said Thomas Bambang Mukamto, who is in charge of security for Christmas services at the 19th-century Jakarta Cathedral.

"This will be the third year and we are improving some aspects of the security here," Mukamto said, speaking in front of two metal detector portals and pointing to the single entrance gate and single exit gate.

This year, almost 166,000 officers will be deployed nationwide to safeguard the Christmas and New Year festivities -- more than 22,000 of them in the capital alone.

At the Canisius Roman Catholic church, only cars with stickers will be allowed to park inside the compound. Worshippers will be checked with metal detectors.

Jakarta police chief, Inspector General Makbul Padmanegara, personally inspected security at the cathedral.

"Based on intelligence information that we have received, the prominent issue that needs to be addressed is bombings," he said last week, pledging to station officers at 243 churches across Jakarta and its suburbs.

An estimated 87 percent of the country 212 million people are Muslim and just under 10 percent are Christians. But Islam is not the official religion and the country has a history of religious tolerance, despite outbreaks of sectarian bloodshed in recent years.