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Asia's most wanted in U.S. hands


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Asia's most wanted in U.S. hands

Friday, August 15, 2003 Posted: 8:03 AM EDT (1203 GMT)

Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, is wanted throughout SE Asia and in the U.S.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Asia's most wanted terrorist, Hambali, has been handed over to the Americans and flown out of Thailand.

While authorities are not willing to say exactly where Hambali is being held, tip-offs from local residents and intelligence sharing among several nations led to his capture, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Friday.

Also known as Riduan Isamuddin, Hambali is the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror group and the suspected mastermind behind a spate of bombings in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, among them the October 2002 Bali blasts.

The Indonesian-based terrorist mastermind was wanted by at least half a dozen countries and has been linked to the September 11 attacks on America, the bombing of the USS Cole and last week's Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta.

The 38-year-old Afghan war veteran, who has been on the run from authorities since at least 2000, was videotaped in January of that year meeting with two of the 9/11 hijackers in Malaysia -- Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

Thai authorities captured a clean-shaven Hambali, along with a woman who is believed to be his wife, two days ago in the central temple town of Ayutthaya.

His face altered by plastic surgery, Hambali was handed over to the CIA, U.S. officials said.

"We received tip-offs from local people that there were strange-looking people staying around there so we checked their background and passports and realized that they were the people we were looking for," Thaksin told a Thai reporter in Sri Lanka.

Investigators said Hambali was plotting to stage an operation during the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, scheduled to be held in Thailand in October, and they are hoping his arrest will prevent future attacks.

Thailand's defense minister said Hambali had been flown to Indonesia after being handed over to the CIA, sparking rumors he had been shipped home, but officials in Jakarta said they could not confirm this.

"We have a strong interest for Hambali to be handed over to Indonesia," Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said.

"But at the same time, we fully understand that terrorism is an international threat to peace and security that he is also on the wanted list by others." (Indonesia left in the dark)

Even if Hambali were to return to Indonesia he would not be staying in the country to face trial, officials told CNN, although they welcomed news of his arrest. (Praise, caution)

As operations chief of JI, Hambali was a link with al Qaeda and was the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda's leadership council. (Profile | Al Qaeda-JI link)

Sources told CNN al Qaeda had asked Hambali to recruit more suicide hijackers after the September 11 attacks on America, and he was given a large sum of money earlier this year to carry out a major attack.

'Big fish'

Investigators say Hambali has invaluable information that could dismantle whole terror networks -- not just in Indonesia -- but throughout Southeast Asia and beyond.

U.S. President George W. Bush called Hambali "one of the world's most lethal terrorists" and said his capture was a significant victory in the war on terrorism.

The six-storey apartment block where Hambali was arrested.

"He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom," Bush told Marines at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in California.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard described the arrest as a "huge breakthrough."

"This man is a very big fish," Howard told Australian media.

-- CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa, CNN Correspondent Atika Shubert and journalist Amy Chew contributed to this report.

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