updated 1/30/2006 6:10:58 PM ET 2006-01-30T23:10:58

Southeast Asia’s most wanted terror leader is now claiming to head a new regional militant organization with links to al-Qaida, Indonesia’s police chief said Monday.

The suspect, Malaysian Noordin Top, had been regarded as a key leader in Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant network believed to be fighting for an Islamic state stretching across much of Southeast Asia. Its roots go back to the 1980s.

Indonesia’s police chief, Gen. Sutanto, told lawmakers Monday that Noordin was claiming to be the head of the “Tanzim Qaidat-al Jihad” or “Al-Qaida’s Jihad Organization” in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Sutanto, who goes by a single name, said the claim came in a message from Noordin in which he took responsibility for last year’s restaurant bombings on Indonesia’s Bali island, which killed 20. He did not elaborate.

Some experts have speculated that Noordin and his followers have been operating outside Jemaah Islamiyah’s command structure in recent years.

“If it is true that he has given a new name to the group — that would suggest that the split has been formalized,” said Sidney Jones, a leading expert on Southeast Asian militant groups.

Dubbing the group “al-Qaida” did not mean that Noordin had formal links with Osama bin Laden’s terror group, she said.

“It could be a way of buoying up his image (to) his followers,” Jones said.

Noordin is accused of a leading role in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people — mostly foreign tourists — and in 2003-04 attacks that left more than 20 dead in the capital, Jakarta.

He is considered the most dangerous Southeast Asian terrorist still on the run.

Last year, Noordin’s partner, Azahari bin Husin, was shot dead by police during a raid in a terrorist safe house on Java island. Noordin himself narrowly escaped capture days before, police said.

In 2003, Jemaah Islamiyah’s alleged operations chief, Hambali, was captured in Thailand and handed over to the United States.

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