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Bali (Indonesia)- A car bomb blast that destroyed a nightclub and started an inferno left at least 187 people dead and wounded 300 on this tourist island late on Saturday night. The blast was followed by another, smaller explosion near the US consular office. Nobody was hurt, the police said.

The explosions came on the second anniversary of the Al Qaeda-linked bombing of the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast.

No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, the most devastating terror strike since the 9-11 attacks. But the needle of suspicion pointed to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a fundamentalist organisation seeking to set up an Islamic state in south-east Asia. Its alleged leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, lives in Indonesia.

The bomb went off in a Kijanj, a jeep-like vehicle, at the packed Sari Club at the Kuta Beach resort at 11 p.m., Gen. Da‘i Bachtiar, Indonesian police chief, said it ignited a huge blaze — apparently caused by exploding gas cylinders which brought down the flimsy roof, trapping hundreds of people inside, Among the dead were tourists from Australia, Canada, Britain, Sweden, France, Germany and Ecuador.

The blast attracted a barrage of international condemnation. The US embassy in Indonesia said Washington “condemns in the strongest possible terms this despicable act of terror”. In London, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee said the incident, “inspired by religious extremism reminds us of the responsibility (of) … ridding the world of this cancer”.

JI chief Bashir addressed a news conference on Sunday. At which he accused the US of engineering the blast so that it could “blame Muslims, including me”.

Bashir is a professed admirer of Osama bin Laden. A Kuwaiti man called Omar Farooq, recently handed over to the US by Indonesia, had given Al Qaeda hunters details of Bashir’s and the JI’s links with Al Qaeda.

Malaysia and Singapore have been pressing Indonesia to arrest Bashir, but Jakarta says there is no evidence against him. Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri promised to cooperate in the global fight against terrorism. On a possible Al Qaeda link, she said, “That will be continuously investigated.”

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