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Singapore says sorry for escape of suspected terror group leader as manhunt scours island
Singapore Terror Su 5480297
A soldier from the Singapore Armed Forces stands guard at a bus stop along a residential area on Thursday Feb. 28, 2008 in Singapore. The government of tightly controlled Singapore apologized Thursday for a rare security lapse after an Islamic terror group leader escaped from jail, triggering a massive manhunt across the island nation for a man who walks with a limp. Mas Selamat Kastari, who had allegedly plotted to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore's Changi airport, slipped away from a detention center on Wednesday, authorities said. Mas Selamat is said to be commander of the al-Qaida linked Jemaah Islamiyah's Singapore arm. - photo by Associated Press
    SINGAPORE — The Singapore government apologized Thursday for the security lapse that allowed a suspected Islamic terrorist leader to escape from jail, triggering a manhunt across this usually well-policed island nation.
    Authorities said Mas Selamat Kastari, who once allegedly plotted to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore’s international airport, slipped away Wednesday. He is said to be commander of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian extremist group allied with al-Qaida.
    Minister of Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said Mas Selamat escaped after being taken from his cell to go to a room for a scheduled visit by his family at the Whitley Road Detention Center, which is in a wooded residential area in central Singapore.
    Mas Selamat, 47, was allowed to first go to the restroom and escaped from the heavily guarded facility, Wong said in Parliament, without offering any specifics.
    ‘‘This should never have happened,’’ said Wong, who is also 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 in what is one of Asia’s most prosperous financial and business centers.
    Among the security service’s biggest successes 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 by Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attack, according to a transcript of his Combatant Status Review Tribunal last year at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.
    The Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement that ‘‘extensive police resources have been deployed to track’’ down Mas Selamat, who walks with a limp.
    Nepalese Gurkhas who guard the jail fanned out across a nearby snake-infested forest, checking vacant bungalows and peering down drains and back alleys of private housing areas.
    Thousands of police officers and soldiers set up roadblocks to check passing cars. Dozens of riot police and military trucks parked along main roads.
    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 all of Singapore’s land, air and sea entry ports, Wong said. It takes less than an hour to drive the length of the island and Indonesia and Malaysia are just short boat rides away.
    Malaysia’s police chief said his officers and border guards had been alerted to watch for Mas Selamat, who was being held under Singapore’s Internal Security Act that allows indefinite detention without trial.
    Indonesian security officials said they were prepared for the likelihood that Mas Selamat might attempt to come over.
    Mas Selamat ‘‘would think Indonesia is the safest place’’ to hide out, said Nasir Abbas, a former Jemaah Islamiyah operative who now works closely with Indonesian police.
    Associated Press writers Julia Zappei in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Chris Brummitt and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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