JAKARTA - INDONESIA'S police and media were left red-faced after it was officially confirmed on Wednesday that terror mastermind Noordin Top is still alive and on the run. After six years of eluding capture, the Malaysian-born Noordin apparently escaped an 18-hour siege and gunbattle in central Java last Friday.
Indonesian media had reported extensively that South-east Asia's most wanted terrorist was believed shot dead, and the authorities said it needed to be confirmed.
On Wednesday, national police spokesman Nanan Soekarna told a packed press conference that DNA tests showed the dead man to be Ibrahim, a Noordin follower who was a florist at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The 40-year-old florist disappeared after the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels were bombed on July 17, leaving nine people dead.
Mr Soekarna said Ibrahim helped to smuggle explosive materials into the hotels and helped to coordinate the twin attacks. He also said that Ibrahim was to have taken part in a suicide bombing targeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's home outside Jakarta around the time of Indonesia's Independence Day on Aug 17. This plot was uncovered also last weekend.
The Noordin fiasco is a major blow to the police, and overshadowed a recent major success in nabbing five suspected militants, uncovering a cache of materials that could be turned into 100kg bombs, and seizing a pick-up truck which might have been used in the attack on the President.
Last Wednesday, the police were told by an arrested terrorist that Noordin was travelling to Solo, Jepara or Temanggung, all in Central Java. They tailed some men who left a rented house in Bekasi, West Java, and then travelled to different locations in Central Java. They were told that one of the men was in fact Noordin.
On Friday, police caught two men believed to be Noordin's bodyguards at a bicycle workshop in Temanggung. When shown a photograph of Noordin, the men said that he was the person they had taken to a farmhouse nearby. Police reinforcements were sent to Beji, a village in Temanggung, in the hope of nabbing Noordin.
But some in the police force tipped off television networks about the operation, which involved more than 100 heavily armed, anti-terrorist police troops who surrounded the farmhouse.
When a body bag was seen being taken from the house, several TV networks covering the siege concluded that Noordin had been killed by the elite Detachment 88 police unit. Major newspapers and media reported extensively that Noordin was dead.
Police spokesman Soekarna on Wednesday blamed the media. 'Police never said it was Noordin. Who said it was Noordin?' he replied, when asked about the fiasco.