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AP: Wanted terrorists plan new attacks
( 2003-11-12 13:45) (Agencies)

Two of Asia's most wanted terrorists are armed with explosives and planning fresh attacks on Western hotels and banks ! possibly disguising themselves as beggars and receiving shelter from fellow radicals, officials told The Associated Press.

Malaysians Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Mohammed Top ! both alleged leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah and believed to have been key players in last year's Bali bombings that killed 202 people ! are the target of a massive manhunt following their narrow escape from a police dragnet in the West Javanese city of Bandung on Oct. 31.

The combo pictures show the latest picture, right, of Malaysian terror suspect Noordin Mohammad Top who allegedly has changed his appearance compared to the previous image, left, released by Indonesian Police on Nov. 3, 2003.  [AP/File]
Six unexploded bombs were discovered in the rented house they left behind, and police say they are each carrying several pounds of explosives. Their escape has raised questions about the police force's anti-terror capabilities.

Police have set up road blocks and distributed the suspects' mugshots to mosques and boarding houses in West Java and the island of Sumatra, two regions where they are believed most likely to be hiding.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have heightened security along their borders in hopes of nabbing Azahari, a British-trained engineer and a former university lecturer who police say now uses his expertise to assemble bombs, and Noordin, another university graduate and top bomb maker.

"Authorities believe the duo are bent on carrying out more bombings and were identifying suitable targets before police closed in on them," a senior Malaysian official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. "There is still enough infrastructure and logistic support for the JI (Jemaah Islamiyah) to carry out more attacks in Indonesia," he said.

The two men are believed to have been key players in the Oct. 12, 2002, Bali bombings. Authorities say they've narrowly escaped capture at least three times since then.

They've used various aliases, stayed in boarding houses and repeatedly changed their clothes to portray themselves as beggars, academics, Muslim clerics or travelers heading home for the holy month of Ramadan, authorities say.

"Why they escaped is not a great mystery. The basic problem is that police don't know what they look like" because of their disguises, said Ansyaad Mbai, who heads the counterterrorism desk at the Ministry of Political and Security Affairs.

"What is of great concern is that they escaped and are carrying bombs," he told AP.

Based on interrogations with other suspects, police said the two were planning to bomb a U.S.-owned Citibank in Bandung and Western-owned hotels and residential neighborhoods popular with foreigners in Jakarta.

The bespectacled 46-year-old Azahari, who taught bomb-making classes in Afghanistan and the Philippines, is the most wanted of the two. He is believed to have assembled one of two bombs used in the Bali attack ! the worst act of terrorism since Sept. 11 ! as well as masterminding the Aug. 5 bombing of J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people.

Noordin is also believed to have participated in both attacks.

Police thought they had finally caught up with the fugitives in a rather unlikely place ! the normally tranquil hill city of Bandung which lies about four hours outside the capital Jakarta.

After a tip from a Jemaah Islamiyah operative in custody, police surrounded a Bandung neighborhood Oct. 30 and prepared to arrest the men.

But after staking out the area for most of the night, they entered the house only to find six bombs and the men's identity cards scattered on the floor.

Police initially said they had allowed the men to run free because they feared they would blow themselves up with explosives strapped to their waists. But Mbai denied that account, confirming the men were carrying explosives but saying they simply disappeared into the crowded streets of Bandung, possibly fleeing in a minibus.

Some have criticized the police for allowing the men to get away, and urged the force to enlist the help of the military and intelligence services. The agencies have long been criticized for failing to cooperate.

Mbai said the government is loath to bring the military into the mix, fearing it will prompt a backlash from many Indonesians who associate government troops with the heavy-handed tactics of ex-dictator Suharto.

"The government wants to show that it can fight terror purely with law enforcement and by using the laws," Mbai said. "It would be ideal to use (the military) because they have so many troops. But the military is seen as committing human rights violations in the past and even using the intelligence agents raises suspicions about the government wanting to maintain its authoritarian ways."

Police have been lauded for rounding up most of those responsible for the Bali bombings. But the failure to find Azahari and Noordin shows the difficulties of defeating terrorism in a country of nearly 17,000 islands with porous borders and a minority that supports Islamic radicalism.

Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert with the International Crisis Group, says: "There is a sympathetic network of people who are not Jemaah Islamiyah but who would certainly give refuge for people like this."

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