JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian authorities are almost certain the country’s most wanted Islamic militant was killed in a gunbattle with security forces, the national police chief said Tuesday.
Two suspected militants were killed Monday in the shootout in a remote jungle area of Sulawesi where police and troops have been pursuing Santoso and his followers for months. Police say facial and other identifying characteristics suggest the dead men are Santoso and his deputy Basri.
“We can say that 90 percent, one of the bodies was Santoso, and 70 percent, Basri,” said Gen. Tito Karnavian, the national police chief.
He said the bodies are being flown to a police hospital in the capital of Central Sulawesi province where family members, village heads and captured members of Santoso’s group will take part in a formal identification process.
Santoso, head of the East Indonesia Mujahideen militant group that has claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, has eluded capture for more than five years.
Like many other Indonesian extremists, his No. 1 enemy became the police following the break-up of a training camp in a remote part of Aceh in 2010 by the police anti-terrorism squad Detachment 88. Dozens of suspected militants were killed and more than 100 others arrested in the raid.
Santoso’s deputy Basri was imprisoned in 2007 for beheading three Christian students but escaped in 2012.
Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung said police have informed President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo about the possibility Santoso was killed.
More than 2,500 security forces personnel, including elite army troops, intensified their operations this year in Poso, a mountainous district of Central Sulawesi considered an extremist hotbed, to try to capture Santoso and his followers.
Three people escaped from the shootout with security forces on Monday including two women.
Karnavian said the deaths, if confirmed, would improve the security situation in Central Sulawesi. Another senior figure, Ali Kalora, remains alive but lacks the leadership capability or military skills of Santoso or Basri, he said.