Kidnappers holding two Indonesian women hostages in Iraq are demanding the release of a militant cleric accused of leading a terrorist group in Southeast Asia. But the cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, has condemned the kidnapping.
The two women are being held by a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq. The women were abducted a few days ago along with eight other employees of a British electronics company.
In a statement aired on the Arabic al-Jazeera television network, the Islamic Army demanded the release of militant Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in return for the freedom of the two women. Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri released a statement on al-Jazeera pleading for the release of the women, but she did not mention Bashir.
She says there was no reason for the kidnapping: the women were only in Iraq to work to support their families. She says the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is about to start and appeals to the group to release them.
One of his lawyers said Bashir is angry at the kidnappers because taking hostages, especially women, is outlawed in Islam. He called for the immediate and unconditional release of the women.
A spokesman for the Indonesian government said Saturday they were still trying to verify the demand, and declined to speculate what action might be taken if it turns out to be true.
In the past, the Indonesian government has said it needs to balance the welfare of the hostages against the principle of not negotiating with terrorists.
Although Indonesia has had success in fighting domestic and regional terrorism, it has been a sharp critic of the United States' broader war in Iraq.
The Indonesian police believe Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Islamic group behind a car bombing in a Bali tourist area that killed more than 200 people two years ago.
Bashir, who denies having any connection to terrorism, is in custody awaiting trial charges related to a bombing last year at a U.S.-run hotel in Jakarta.