Police carry body bags, one of which is believed to contain the remains of Santoso, the country's most-wanted militant / photo: ANTARA

Indonesia’s most wanted militant shot dead by Indonesian police-military joint task force

Jakarta – The gunfight between the Tinombala Task Force and the armed terrorist group in Poso, Central Sulawesi, on Monday afternoon ended with the death of suspected leader of the group, Santoso.

Indonesian police said that they believe they have killed the country’s most wanted militant in a jungle gun battle.

Deputy Regional Police Chief of Central Sulawesi, Senior Commissioner Leo Bona Lubis, stated on Tuesday that the police has confirmed that one of the two radicals shot dead by the police-military joint task force was Santoso, the leader of Poso’s armed terror group in Central Sulawesi.

“Based on physical examination, the body is of Santoso. We are now awaiting the result of the DNA test,” he remarked at the Bhayangkara Hospital in Palu, Central Sulawesi, on Tuesday.

Numerous people who had met Santoso or fought alongside him had been asked to identify the body, and confirmed it was him, police said.

One other militant was also reported to have been killed, senior police officials said he was believed to be Santoso’s right-hand man.

Santoso, also known as “Abu Wardah”, has been Indonesia’s most highly sought militant but not necessarily the most dangerous.

Santoso pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014 and had been officially labelled a terrorist by the US government. He was the first Indonesian militant leader to publicly pledge allegiance to IS in 2014, and had been active in sectarian violence in Poso between 1998 and 2001.

His small Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT) group was known for carrying out attacks on security forces, and he had urged others to do the same through videos.

MIT is based in Central Sulawesi’s mountainous Poso district, a hotbed of religious conflict for over a decade. It is believed to only have about 20 fighters left.

Indonesian counter-terror forces have been actively hunting him since 2013, and have done so with greater urgency following the terror attack in Jakarta in January, as they feared he planned to turn the region into a militant hub.

Santoso is believed to have been training Uighur fighters from China in Poso and had links to other militant groups in the Philippines.

However, Santoso has not necessarily been the main terror threat to Indonesia. Despite his support for Islamic State, officials do not believe Santoso played a role in an attack in Jakarta in January, in which eight people killed including the four attackers. The jailed cleric Aman Abdurrahman and his followers are believed to have been behind it.

Presidential Special Staff Johan Budi, in a short message to ANTARA on Tuesday, hailed the joint military-police task force. He said President Jokowi has expressed his appreciation for the successful task force operation.

President Joko Widodo last year escalated the search for Santoso, which was already involving thousands of police, by including the military.

“However, the President asked that the remaining members of the group should also be hunted down,” reminded Johan, adding that the head of state urged the people to remain vigilant against the threat of terrorism.

“This could demoralize Islamic State supporters in Indonesia because Santoso was the symbol of open resistance against the government,” National police chief Tito Karnavian told reporters at the presidential palace in Jakarta.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, but militants have operated in the country and launched sporadic attacks over the past 15 years. Dozens of militants have been drawn to the Middle East to link up with militants fighting there.