Saudi Arabia aired photographs yesterday on national TV of four wanted militants killed in a firefight after dumping the mutilated body of a US hostage, including the bloodied corpse of the reputed leader of al-Qaeda in the kingdom.
The al-Qaeda cell allegedly led by Abdulaziz al-Moqrin fulfilled its threat to kill Paul M. Johnson, Jr., beheading him and showing the grisly photos on the Internet on Friday.
Afterward, US and Saudi officials said privately that al-Moqrin was killed in a shootout.
A statement posted yesterday on an Islamist Web site denied that, saying such claims were "aimed at dissuading the holy warriors and crushing their spirits."
The killing of al-Moqrin, 31, would be a coup for the Saudi government, which has been pressed to halt a wave of attacks against Westerners in the kingdom.
Condemnation of Johnson's killing came from around the world, with even one of the US' staunchest foes, Syria, calling it a "shameful crime."
One of the photographs, the Saudi TV announcer said, was of Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, the kingdom's most-wanted terror suspect. It showed the face of a young man, clean-shaven except for his mustache and resembling past pictures believed to be of al-Moqrin, apparently dead. Saudi news channel Al-Ekhbariya showed a full shot of al-Moqrin's corpse covered with blood.
A trickle of blood ran from the mouth of another of the militants pictured, and the teeth of a third appeared smashed.
The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) identified the three other militants killed as Faisal Abdul-Rahman al-Dikheel, Turki bin Fuheid al-Muteiry and Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Dreiham.
The four were cornered at a gas station in the al-Malaz neighborhood in the capital Riyadh, and died in a heavy exchange of gunfire with Saudi security forces. Al-Ekhbariya featured footage of the gas station where the shootout took place, with blood on the street and covering some merchandise inside.
According to the SPA statement, al-Dikheel -- also on the kingdom's list of the top 26 wanted militants -- was involved in a number of killings and was apparently featured in video footage of Johnson's killing. Al-Muteiry was among the militants to flee the scene of the May 29 shooting and hostage-taking attack on the oil hub of Khobar that killed 22 people, and al-Dreiham was linked to last Nov. 8's suicide bombing at Riyadh housing compounds that killed 17, the statement added.
One security officer was killed in the Friday raid and two others were injured, the statement on SPA said.
Saudi officials in Washington said on condition of anonymity that five Saudi security officers were killed in the gunbattle. Two suspects escaped, said a Saudi security official who participated.
Al-Moqrin was believed to be behind numerous attacks on foreigners in the kingdom, including the kidnapping and ultimate beheading of Johnson, an employee of the US defense contractor Lockheed Martin whose death was reported on Friday.
Saudi newspapers denounced Johnson's killers and hailed the efforts of Saudi security forces. The Interior Ministry provided no details on how the operation -- said to have begun with a citizen calling in the number of the vehicle from which Johnson's body was dumped -- played out.
However, the statement said that authorities also confiscated three cars used by the cell, including one believed to have been used in the June 6 killing of Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers.