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U.N. working with militant cleric in quake zone

A militant Islamic group is helping the United Nations deliver food to survivors of last month's earthquake on Java Island, both sides said Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A militant Islamic group headed by freed radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir is helping the United Nations deliver food to survivors of last month's earthquake on Java Island, both sides said Wednesday.

Bashir was released from prison Wednesday after serving more 26 months for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombings, and his group's cooperation with the U.N.'s World Food Program will raise concerns over the agency's choice of partners and whether it is giving Bashir a public-relations boost.

WFP spokesman Barry Came said it had given Bashir's Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia group 95 tons of food to donate to villagers. The group is one of eight local organizations the WFP is using to help it distribute aid, he said.

"We don't pick groups to distribute aid based on their religious or political beliefs," Came said. "We choose based on the ability to deliver, and so far they've performed up to standard. We have no complaints."

Group campaigns for Islamic law

MMI chairman Irfan Awwas said Bashir himself would hand over food to survivors of the May 27 quake later this month. It was not known whether this aid will be provided by the WFP, or from other donations made directly to MMI.

"Bashir was deeply concerned when he heard thousands of people were killed or displaced by the quake near his hometown," Awwas said. "He feels the people's suffering because he was born and raised in this region."

MMI is a legal group in Indonesia that campaigns for the imposition of Islamic Shariah law.

Many of its members have fought in Muslim-Christian conflicts, and Indonesia's intelligence chief said this week that many hard-liners linked to the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group also belong to MMI.

Bashir himself is accused of being a key leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for the Bali bombings that killed 202 people and other bloody attacks. Police say the network received funds from al-Qaida for some of the attacks.

Survivors grateful for aid
The 6.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 5,700 people and collapsed 200,000 houses, most in the Bantul region in central Java.

Earthquake victim Sarbini said she had received some food from MMI.

"I don't care about their motivation," the mother of 10 said while standing in the rubble of her home. "They provided us with much-needed food."

The MMI and other hard-line Islamic groups were some of the first groups to provide relief in Aceh province following the 2004 tsunami. Their presence initially raised security concerns, but the workers were peaceful and praised for tirelessly collecting corpses and clearing out damaged hospitals.