MALANG, Indonesia -- One of Southeast Asia's most wanted terrorists apparently blew himself up Wednesday to escape capture when an elite security unit attacked his hideout, Indonesia's president said. Two other suspected militants were thought killed in the blast.
Known as the "Demolition Man" for his expertise with explosives, Azahari bin Husin was a key figure in Jemaah Islamiyah, a terror network with links to al-Qaida that has been blamed for a series of deadly bombings as well as failed plots in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore.
"We are convinced it is Azahari," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters, although he said laboratory tests would be conducted to confirm his identity.
An elite U.S-trained police unit raided Azahari's safe house in Malang in east Java province on Wednesday. Officers said he and two other militants there blew themselves up to avoid capture as the heavily armed officers moved in.
Bomb squad officers picked through the badly damaged and bullet-marked building to ensure it was not booby trapped. The three bodies remained in the house.
Forensic officers were scheduled to take DNA and fingerprint samples from the dead men once the house was clear.
Australia's Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said Indonesian police were certain it was Azahari after anti-terrorist forces found his head.
His death would be a blow to the group, which former members say is motivated by anger at U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world and a desire to establish an Islamic state across the region.
But security experts cautioned that even if Azahari died, Jemaah Islamiyah remained capable of staging attacks. They said at least four of its senior leaders were at large in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Azahari, a native of Malaysia, was accused of masterminding bombings that killed hundreds of people in Indonesia the past three years, but long eluded police by moving from one rented house to another in densely populated areas.
Police spokesman Aryanto Budihardjo said the raided house in Malang was rented by Azahari's group three months ago and authorities started surveillance 10 days ago after being tipped off by a recently arrested terror suspect. The town is about 530 miles east of the capital, Jakarta.
Gen. Sutanto, the national police chief, told reporters that Azahari realized he was trapped when members of an elite U.S.-trained anti-terrorism unit moved in on the house Wednesday, backed by snipers stationed on nearby rooftops.
The suspected terrorists inside shot at police and set off at least 11 explosions.
"The last one, the big one, was a suicide blast. That is the one that killed them," Sutanto said as hundreds of onlookers crowded behind a yellow police tape for a glimpse of the smoking, bombed-out building.
Officials have described Azahari, said to be in his 40s, as Jemaah Islamiyah's bomb-making expert.
Together with Noordin Mohamed Top, another Malaysian, Azahari was accused of direct involvement in at least four terror attacks: the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists; two bombings in Jakarta in 2003 and 2004 that took 23 lives; and the Oct. 1 suicide attacks on Bali that caused 20 more deaths.
Sutanto said Noordin was not believed to be among those killed Wednesday. Officials say the two men had taken to traveling apart. The pair are thought to have left a rented house near Jakarta in July 2004 not long before a police raid that found traces of explosives.
Azahari is believed to have been introduced to militant Islam after meeting Jemaah Islamiyah's alleged top leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, in the 1980s.
Azahari studied mechanical engineering at Adelaide University in Australia before getting a doctorate in property valuation from Reading University in the United Kingdom in 1990.
He taught at a Johor university before getting involved with Jemaah Islamiyah. Azahari is known to have received bomb-making training in Mindanao in the southern Philippines in 1999 and advanced training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in 2000.
Azahari fled Malaysia, leaving behind his wife and two children, when police uncovered his role in Jemaah Islamiyah during a crackdown after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.