Singapore embarrassed by capture of terror suspect

Seth Mydans
The New York Times

A suspected terrorist leader who took off his pants, wriggled through a bathroom window and escaped from a high-security prison in Singapore last year has been caught in Malaysia, officials said Friday.

The fugitive, Mas Selamat bin Kastari, 47, was arrested early last month after Singapore had failed to capture him in a huge manhunt that in effect turned the country’s entire population into a posse of 4 million empty-handed informants.

The escape and the fruitless all-points pursuit were an embarrassing demonstration of fallibility in a nation that prides itself on efficiency, competence and rigorous law enforcement.

The government had described Mas Selamat as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the region, the local leader of the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah.

“How he got from the detention center to Malaysia without anybody seeing him is extraordinary after the biggest and most expensive manhunt ever taken by Singapore,” said Sidney Jones, a leading terrorism expert who is senior adviser to the Asia Program of the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict monitoring agency.

Singaporean and Malaysian officials said he had been captured April 1 in southern Malaysia, across the Johor Strait from Singapore, in an area that is home to sympathizers of Jemaah Islamiyah.

In Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kang Seng said at a news conference that Mas Selamat had swum across the Johor Strait, which varies in width from a half mile at its narrowest point to two miles – using an “improvised flotation device,” evading a frantic search that had begun as soon as his escape was discovered.

An official investigation found that by letting the water run in the washroom and hanging a pair of pants over a ledge above the cubicle door, giving the impression he was still there, Mas Selamat gave himself 11 minutes to make his getaway, even as a guard waited just outside the door. The prisoner squeezed through the window, shinnied down a drainpipe onto a cushion of rolls of toilet paper, climbed a fence and disappeared.

The escape took place before one of Mas Selamat’s weekly visits with his wife and children. Prisoners were allowed to change into civilian clothes to meet their relatives, and Mas Selamat had asked for privacy in a bathroom as he changed.

The report said the escape had resulted from a confluence of factors. It held no single person responsible and said Mas Selamat had received no inside help.

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