Indonesian police said on Friday they came within two hours of apprehending one of two Malaysians who are among the most wanted terrorists in south-east Asia and considered the prime suspects in the suicide bombings in Bali.

A senior police official told the Financial Times that investigators had raided the central Java village of Purwantoro around 3am on Friday after receiving a tip that Noordin M. Top, a key member of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, was hiding out there.

Together with Azahari bin Husin, a UK-educated Malaysian engineer, Mr Top has been linked to repeated bombings in Indonesia since the October 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, which left 202 dead. While Mr Azahari is considered to be JI’s top bomb-maker, Mr Top is thought to be one of its best operational masterminds.

Although police have said they have yet to uncover any firm evidence linking the Malaysians to last Saturday’s suicide bombings in Bali, which left 22 dead and more than 100 injured, senior police and other officials have repeatedly pointed to the pair as prime suspects in their investigation.

The apparent near miss by Indonesian police in the early hours of Friday morning has deprived authorities of what would have been a major victory in the battle against terrorism in south-east Asia.

According to Abdjul Madjid, police chief for the Solo region in central Java, investigators had received information that Mr Top had been staying in Purwantoro, a 90-minute drive south-east of Solo, since last Saturday’s bombings in Bali.

“After the Bali bombing, he (Top) was still there,” Mr Madjid said.

“We raided the house at around 3am, during Sahur time (early-morning prayers), but according to the neighbours he had left around 1am,” Mr Madjid said. “He might come back to the house. We just told the neighbours we were looking for a robbery suspect.”

A national police spokesman said he could not confirm the raid. But Police Lieutenant Colonel Sutoyo, a spokesman for police in Wonogiri district, which includes Purwantoro, confirmed that members of Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism unit had taken part in a raid for a “top wanted terrorist.”

Diplomats say catching either Azahari bin Husin or Noordin M. Top would mark a major victory in the fight against terrorism and potentially reduce the ability of Jemaah Islamiyah to carry out further attacks.

According to Sidney Jones, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is the world’s leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah, the two are believed to be at the forefront of a violent faction within the group intent on continuing bombing campaigns.

While on the run in Indonesia the pair have been recruiting outside JI’s ranks, Ms Jones says, and linking up with smaller Indonesian radical Islamic groups. They may also even have gone so far as to form their own splinter group, she says, something people have told her is called Thoifah Muqatilah, or fighting force in Arabic.

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