BALI, Indonesia — Terrified tourists tried Sunday to flee this island paradise that turned into an inferno, with the death toll from a pair of bombings climbing to 187 and fears growing that al-Qaida has taken its terror campaign to the world’s largest Muslim country.
Many of those killed by the two bombs that tore through a nightclub district on Bali island Saturday were Australians as well as other foreigners from Canada, Britain, Germany and Sweden. Two Americans were killed, while three were among the more than 300 people injured.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombings — the worst terrorist attack in Indonesia’s history — but suspicion turned to al-Qaida and an affiliated group, Jemaah Islamiyah, which wants to establish a pan-Islamic state across Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. It is accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. and other embassies in Singapore.
In Washington, President Bush condemned the attack as “a cowardly act designed to create terror and chaos” and offered U.S. help in finding the perpetrators.
“The world must confront this global menace, terrorism,” he said.
The attacks were on the second anniversary of the al-Qaida-linked attack against USS Cole off Yemen that left 17 sailors dead and took place amid signs of increasing terrorist activity that had led to the closure of U.S. embassies and renewed terror alerts for Americans.
The destruction started when a small homemade bomb exploded outside Paddy’s Discotheque in the maze of clubs and bars on Kuta Beach, a popular haunt with young travelers. Shortly afterward, a huge blast from a bomb in a Toyota Kijang, a jeep-like vehicle, 30 yards down the street devastated the crowded Sari Club, a surfers’ hangout.
A third, smaller bomb exploded outside the U.S. consular office. No one was injured in that blast.
The second blast ripped into the open-air bar, triggering a massive burst of flames that officials said was caused by the explosion of gas cylinders used for cooking. The explosion collapsed the roof of the flimsy structure, trapping revelers in flaming wreckage. The explosions and fire damaged about 20 buildings and devastated much of the block.
Identification of the dead was slow, since some were burned beyond recognition.
American Amos Libby, 25, felt himself lifted off his feet as he passed the Sari Club as the bomb detonated.
“All the buildings in the vicinity just collapsed, cars overturned and debris from the buildings fell on them,” he said, without giving his hometown. “I have never seen anything so horrible. There were so many people, 18 to 20 year old, people in pieces all over the street.”
New Zealander Lonny McDowell, 25, was at Paddy’s when the blast blew chairs and concrete through the bar. He said he saw a man with no legs and another with a cable stuck through his stomach.
“Who knows if this couldn’t happen again? I really don’t want to go back to Kuta,” he said looking for his airline ticket home.
Indonesian National Police Chief Gen. Da’i Bachtiar called the it “the worst act of terror in Indonesia’s history.”
President Megawati Sukarnoputri flew to Bali and wept as she toured the wreckage. Asked about a possible link to al-Qaida, she said: “That will be continuously investigated to that this can be uncovered as soon as possible.” She promised to cooperate with other nations to fight terror.
U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce told The Associated Press that it was not possible yet to pin the Bali attack on al-Qaida, but noted that increasing evidence in recent weeks has confirmed al-Qaida’s presence in Indonesia and reaching out to local extremists.
“In recent weeks, we have been able to put an end to a year of speculation as to whether al-Qaida might be in Indonesia, or relocating to Indonesia, or using Indonesia as a base of operations, after the fall of Afghanistan,” Boyce said.
The United States and Indonesia’s neighbors have urged Jakarta for months to pass an anti-terrorism law that has been languishing in the Parliament contending there is a strong al-Qaida presence here. Without the law, Indonesia says, security forces cannot arrest suspects without clear evidence they have committed a crime.
While its neighbors have arrested scores of militants from Jemaah Islamiyah, Jakarta has done little and denied that it is a haven for terrorists.
“This horrible incident has only made it that much more urgent that they find some way to deal with this problem,” Boyce said. “They (Indonesians) are in the middle of doing that.”
The U.S. Embassy was considering scaling back staff, though no decision had been taken.