The night that time froze in Bali

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At the southern end of Jimbaran Bay, a sweeping arc of white sand famed for its beautiful sunsets, is a scene frozen in time.

The tables at the open-air Menega Café are laden with half-eaten meals; crumpled white napkins flutter in the breeze. But the people who gathered there on Saturday night to eat seafood under the stars are nowhere to be seen. The clock at the café stopped at about 7.30pm, when a bomb exploded between the candlelit tables. As diners fled screaming, another bomb went off a few minutes later at the Nyoman Café, just beside it on the beach. Three miles away, a third explosion destroyed the Raja noodle and steak restaurant in Kuta, the heart of Bali's tourist industry. Twenty-six people were killed and 122 were wounded.

Almost three years after the devastating blasts at two Kuta nightspots which killed 202 people, terrorism has returned to the Indonesian holiday island. Among the wreckage of Saturday's attacks were found the severed heads of three suspected suicide bombers. Last time the perpetrators targeted clubbers in Bali; this time it was families dining on the sand. On both occasions, they struck on a Saturday night. And, like last time, despite the selection of targets where tourists gathered, many of those killed and injured were Indonesian. The Balinese hoped such events would never recur. Now their nightmares have been realised, in the most gruesome fashion.

Police have released footage captured on amateur video of a man in a black shirt and jeans, strolling into one of the Jimbaran eateries and blowing himself up.

Bodies are still being identified in the morgue at Bali's main Sanglah Hospital, but 12 Indonesians, three Australians and a Japanese are confirmed to be among the dead. The injured in-clude 64 Indonesians, 20 Australians, seven South Koreans, four Americans, three Japanese, one German and one French tourist. Two Britons were wounded, one of whom, a woman with dual British and Australian nationality, was flown to Jakarta for treatment. The British ambassador to Jakarta, Charles Humfrey, said he could not rule out British deaths, since 10 bodies had yet to be identified.

Indonesia has arrested dozens of members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a loose, shifting network blamed for atrocities across south-east Asia. But the dirt-poor villages of the world's biggest Muslim nation still produce men prepared to die for the cause. And still at large are two Malaysians believed to have choreographed Saturday's events: Azahari bin Husin, an explosives expert, and Noordin Mohamed Top, a senior recruiter of suicide bombers.

Azahari was educated in Australia and at Reading University. A senior Indonesian anti-terrorism official, Ansyaad Mbai, said the latest bombings bore the hallmarks of the pair, who are believed to have been behind the first attacks in Kuta and two others in Jakarta. "The modus operandi ... is the same," he said.

The death toll in Bali is lower this time; 202 people, including 88 Australians, died on 12 October 2002. But the sense of shock is just as deep. The tourism industry, the mainstay of the island's economy, had only recently started to recover. Now the locals are confronting hardship and ruin once again.

Security at Bali's tourist hotels is stringent, and has been for the past three years. All vehicles entering and leaving are thoroughly checked. But how can you protect a little café on the beach without any doors and windows?

Last night the seafood joints that line Jimbaran Bay, selling freshly caught lobster and prawns by the kilo, were almost deserted. The sound of guitars wafted across the sand, but the musicians were playing to rows of empty tables.

The owners of one café
stood outside forlornly. Oka and Yudi, two young Balinese friends, opened the Lumba-Lumba (Dolphin) Café seven years ago. They borrowed heavily from the bank and things initially went well. Then came the 2002 bombs, which slashed by half the number of visitors to the island. In the past year, business had started to pick up. Until Saturday night.

"There was a bang, and now the customers are not coming again," said Yudi. "I'm scared that the same thing is going to happen to Bali. And this time maybe it won't recover."

In the kitchen, the cooks sat idle. "I don't know what we'll do," said Oka. "We still have most of our loan to pay back. I just want Bali to be normal again, with lots of people around. I can't believe that the terrorists have come here twice."

On the road leading into Jimbaran, two little girls - Natalia, six, and Melinia, seven - held aloft a black banner depicting an angel hanged by the neck. "Condemn the terrorists," it read. "Forgive our disability to keep Bali safe." The girls' father, Agleg, owns a small grocery shop and is dependent on the holidaymakers. "I'm worried about my business, and I'm worried about my family," he said. "I feel that it must be dangerous here now."

Indonesia's President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was in Jimbaran yesterday, churning up the dust outside Agleg's shop as he whisked by in a convoy of armoured vehicles and motorcycle outriders. His visit was intended to demonstrate support, but the locals' fleeting glimpse of him almost seemed like a taunt.

At Nyoman Café, charred tables lay upturned and chairs leant at crazy angles. Floral tributes had been placed against fences and saplings. Beyond the police tape, forensic science officers were at work, shovelling sand through a large flat sieve. A bloodstained sheet lay in the middle of a pile of rubbish.

Kuta, too, was deathly quiet last night. Normally the area is raucous. The tourists who fill its bars and cafés were at the international airport, queuing to catch flights out. "Singapore, Bangkok, I don't care where we go," said one woman getting out of a taxi. "Anywhere but Bali." The street where the three-storey Raja's was situated, in central Kuta, was cordoned off.

Mr Susilo Bambang warned recently of a possible terrorist attack, noting that this time of year appears to be Indonesia's "bombing season". After the blasts in Bali in October 2002, a suicide bomber killed 12 people at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. In September last year, also in the capital, nine Indonesians were killed by another suicide bomber, in front of the Australian embassy.

Bali's police chief, I Made Mangku Pastika, said investigators had found traces of TNT and metal slugs at the scenes, as well as the remains of the suspected bombers. "There is evidence that the explosive materials were attached to the body," he said. "That's an indication of suicide bombing."

The footage of one bomber was unwittingly captured on video by a family who were filming themselves having dinner in Jimbaran. After the man walked in, the camera recorded a bright flash, after which screaming could be heard.

Photographs released by the police of the three severed heads, with their faces intact, show three young-looking Asian men. Major General Mbai, the anti-terrorism official, said it appeared that they had carried the explosives strapped around their waists. "All that is left is their hands and feet," he said.