JAKARTA, Indonesia – Police scrambled Sunday to identify the body of a suspected terrorist killed in a farmhouse gunbattle after discovering a plot to kill Indonesia’s president in a suicide car bombing.
Forensics teams planned to collect DNA samples from family members of regional terror mastermind Noordin Muhammad Top, who was reportedly killed during a 16-hour firefight with officers in central Java on Saturday, said Dynno Chressbon, a government anti-terrorism adviser.
One of Noordin’s wives and children were travelling to the capital Jakarta to provide samples, Chressbon said.
Malaysian authorities were also coming to Indonesia to assist in the identification, he said. Noordin is a Malaysian citizen, blamed for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Southeast Asian in recent years, and a self-proclaimed al-Qaida commander.
Serious doubts were raised Sunday that a massive manhunt for Noordin had come to a close after seven years. “We cannot yet confirm that this is Noordin Top,” national police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri said.
Chressbon expressed skepticism that Noordin was killed citing comments from former militants who told media that a militant leader would have never been left alone at a hide-out. Only one body was recovered from the scene.
“I indeed doubt that the victim is the suspected terrorist Noordin Top,” he said.
Retired Gen. Abdullah Hendropriyono, a former intelligence agency, said he also doubted if the dead terrorist was Noordin.
“It is impossible for a terrorist like Noordin to walk or stay alone, without guards,” Hendropriyono told MetroTV. “If he is just alone it is hard to believe … As an analyst, I bet it is not Noordin.”
Widespread media reports of Noordin’s death, which were attributed to anonymous police officers, were largely retracted Sunday.
The English-language Jakarta Post daily newspaper headlined: “Was it Noordin?” while Indonesia broadcaster TV One – which aired dramatic footage of the siege and said Noordin was dead – backtracked on its coverage.
Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters in Canberra on Sunday he planned to speak with Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later in the day to learn whether Noordin had actually been killed.
“It is still unclear as to who precisely has been killed and who has been apprehended,” Rudd said.
Police on Saturday also raided a house on the outskirts of Jakarta where they killed two suspected militants and seized bombs and a car rigged to carry them, the police chief said. The house was just 3 miles (5 kilometres) from the president’s residence.
Hendarso said Noordin and other militants had been plotting to bomb Yudhoyono’s home. He said the decision was made at an April 30 meeting led by Noordin because of the government’s execution of three convicted Bali bombers.
Yudhoyono told reporters he was briefed about an ongoing operation “to uphold law and to eradicate terrorism,” but made no mention of Noordin.
“I extend my highest gratitude and respect to the police for their brilliant achievement in this operation,” he said.
Noordin is also suspected of planning last month’s suicide bombings at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta that killed seven people and ended a four-year pause in terror strikes in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Noordin claimed in a video in 2005 to be al-Qaida’s representative in Southeast Asia and to be carrying out attacks on Western civilians to avenge Muslim deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If Noordin M. Top was captured or killed, this would be extremely good news and a huge step forward for Indonesia’s struggle against terrorism,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group think-tank . “Whether or not the risk of further attacks declines depends on who else is arrested or killed with Noordin.”
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau contributed to this report from Sydney.