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Indonesia Steps Up Investigation After Militant Attack on Police

FILE - Indonesian police and military personnel secure an area in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 2, 2018.
FILE - Indonesian police and military personnel secure an area in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 2, 2018.

Police in Central Sulawesi say they are continuing their hunt for members of a militant group suspected of attacking local police officers last week.

Authorities in the Indonesian province said Sunday the attack that killed one police officer was carried out by a group known as the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT).

Five gunmen ambushed villagers and held them and police officers hostage. The officers had just returned from Friday prayers at a small mosque near a police station in Central Sulawesi's Salubanga village, according to local police.

Local officials said the attackers immediately fled from the vicinity.

"Our members who were in the bulkhead post had a chance to fight back and ask for help from the closest post. As a result … one of our personnel on duty at the post by the name of Muhamad Saepul Muhdori has died," said Sugeng Lestari, Central Sulawesi's police commissioner.

The hostages reportedly managed to escape the scene as the militants exchanged gunfire with police.

What is MIT?

MIT, a U.N.-designated terrorist group, is mostly active in Indonesia's Java and Sulawesi province, with some presence in eastern provinces.

While it is unclear how many fighters are in MIT, the group reportedly has ties with other terrorist groups in the country and abroad.

MIT has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and some of its members have traveled to Syria to join the extremist group.

Since 2012, MIT has targeted Indonesian government officials and security forces, while also killing civilians in multiple attacks. It has become increasingly bold in its attacks on security forces, which include beheadings and the use of explosives and shootings, according to the United Nations.

Indonesian officials say there are currently about 10 active militants affiliated with the MIT, especially after its former leader, Abu Wardah Santoso, was killed in a counterterrorism operation by the Indonesian military in 2016. Nearly 30 members of the group were reportedly captured or killed in the same operation.

Law enforcement officials in Indonesia believe MIT may have recruited new members in recent months.

Counterterrorism efforts

Indonesia, home to 230 million Muslims, has been targeted by terrorist groups in recent years.

Since the bombings on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people, most of them foreigners, the Indonesian government has stepped up its crackdown on Islamic militants, who were blamed for the Bali attack.

New threats have emerged in recent years from IS-inspired extremists who have targeted security forces and locals.

Last month, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Medan city police station, wounding at least six people. That attack came as Indonesia's counterterrorism forces were cracking down on suspected Islamic militants, following the assault by a knife-wielding couple who wounded Indonesia's top security minister in October.

U.S. cooperation

The U.S. has been working with Indonesian authorities to expand mutual cooperation in counterterrorism efforts in the region.

In September 2018, the U.S. and Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen and expand cooperation on counterterrorism, including the exchange of information on terrorist and militant groups.

In its October 2018 "Country Reports on Terrorism," the U.S. State Department said Indonesia has been able to deny terrorist groups safe haven.

"Indonesia applied sustained pressure to detect, disrupt, and degrade terrorist groups operating within its borders and deny them a safe haven," the report said.

Some of the information in this report came from The Associated Press.