3 Muslim Foreigners Arrested in Cambodia
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Cambodia on Wednesday charged an Egyptian and two Thai Muslims with terrorism, after breaking up a local Islamic group with links to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian extremist group associated with al-Qaida, officials said.
The arrests came weeks before major international meetings in Phnom Penh. The ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum, from June 16-21, is to be at110tended by ministers and officials of 23 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As part of the crackdown, authorities closed down a Saudi-funded Islamic religious school, and ordered the expulsion of its 28 teachers and their 22 dependents, within 72 hours. They are from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen and Egypt.
``This operation has foiled any attempts of terrorist activity″ in Cambodia, said Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The crackdown was carried out ``with cooperation and a tip from the United States,″ said police Gen. Sok Phal, who was involved in the investigations. The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment.
Sok Phal said the school had been run by a local Muslim group, Om Al Qura, of which the Egyptian and the two Thais were believed to be members.
The three were arrested Sunday. They were identified as Abdul Azi Haji Thiming and Muhammad Jalaludin Mading of Thailand, and Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali of Egypt.
Oun Bunna, an investigating judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court who interrogated the three men, said they were charged with ``international terrorism with links to JI.″ If convicted they face 20 years to life in prison.
They were jailed pending pretrial investigations that could take six months, Oun Bunna said. He refused to disclose details about the arrests and the suspects’ activities.
Sok Phal said authorities began watching the Om Al Qura-run school about a year ago.
``But recently there has been indication that it could have executed any operation. Therefore prevention was required ahead of the ASEAN meeting,″ he said.
He said police have been tracking ``money transfers″ between Saudi Arabia and the school, ``which has links with JI in Southeast Asia.″
Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, is linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror group and wants to set up an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Its alleged operations chief has confessed to helping plan the Bali bombings last year that killed 202 people. It also allegedly planned a series of foiled attacks on Western interests in the region.
``I’m not saying anything in English,″ Ali told reporters in response to questions on why he was arrested, as he was led from the courtroom.
Om Yentieng said police have established that the suspects had links ``with terrorism activities overseas.″ He did not elaborate.
Most Cambodian Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic minority, who make up less than 5 percent of the country’s 12.5 million people in this mostly Buddhist country.
The government had said in the past that local Muslims have no active links to militant groups.
But intelligence sources said last November that some suspected al-Qaida agents traveling on false passports had entered Cambodia in 2001 and 2002, sometimes staying for weeks as guests of local Muslims.
Although Cambodia had not been directly linked with al-Qaida or the Jemaah Islamiyah, security analysts have expressed concern that the country’s weak border controls and poor law enforcement could make it a haven for militants seeking a hiding place.