SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The prison escape of an alleged top Islamic militant in Singapore is a blow for the city-state, although it is still not clear how the breakout occured, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
The Straits Times newspaper quoted Lee as saying on Monday that the Feb 27 escape of Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged leader of the Singapore wing of Islamic militant network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), was due to complacency among security officials.
“The escape is undoubtedly a setback and it should never have happened,” Lee said in his first public comments of the breakout that has sparked an apology from the government, a manhunt involving thousands of policemen, and an urgent global security alert from world police group Interpol.
“It’s the danger of complacency, of thinking that everything is all right,” he said. “How did it happen? We’re not absolutely sure yet.”
The government has not explained how Kastari, who is thought to have escaped unarmed and walks with a limp, broke out of the detention centre apart from saying that a security lapse led to him slipping away from a toilet.
The JI has been blamed for several deadly bombing attacks in Southeast Asia, including the 2002 bombings that killed more than 200 people on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali.
Lee said the government has no reason to think Kastari has left Singapore, and that there is a “good chance” of arresting him if he is still in the country.
Experts said the escape is seen as an embarrassment for Singapore which prides itself on having a sophisticated security system.
They say Kastari may head to Indonesia where he can find support from local JI networks.
Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of modern Singapore and father of the prime minister, was quoted as saying in the Straits Times on Saturday that Singapore could be dealt with a “return hit sometime” if Kastari slips into Indonesia.
However, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry was quoted earlier by the Straits Times as saying that Kastari will not be sent back to Singapore if he was caught in Indonesia because the two countries do not have an extradition agreement.
Calling the escape a “very severe lesson of complacency”, the elder Lee said authorities were “confident that they had their prisoner sized up, but he had sized up his custodians in turn”.
Singapore, a strong U.S. ally and a major base for Western businesses, sees itself as a prime terrorist target in the region after it foiled JI plots in 2001 to attack its airport and other targets, including the U.S. embassy.
Reporting by Koh Gui Qing
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