Thu, Jul 22, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Saudis detain top militant's family

REUTERS , RIYADH

Saudi security forces killed two militants in a fierce exchange of fire in Riyadh and detained the family of the suspected leader of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia, officials said yesterday.

An Interior Ministry statement said three other militants were hurt in the clash in the capital on Tuesday night. It did not say whether Saleh al-Awfi, believed to be al-Qaeda's leader in Saudi Arabia, was among those killed or wounded.

Three policemen were also wounded in the latest fighting between government forces and al-Qaeda backers bent on toppling the pro-US leaders of the world's biggest oil exporter.

The ministry statement said the fighting broke out in north Riyadh's busy King Fahd district, where security forces were investigating a site used by supporters of "the deviant and corrupt ideology" -- a reference to al-Qaeda sympathizers.

They came under intense fire from gunmen armed with bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, said the ministry statement, which was published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Security forces returned fire at the gunmen, "killing two of them and wounding three, who were arrested, as well as detaining the family of the wanted man Saleh al-Awfi, made up of his wife and three children," the statement said.

During the fighting a second group of armed men opened fire on security forces before escaping, the agency said. Police found weapons, explosives and documents at the site, it added.

Some 90 policemen and civilians, many of them foreigners, have been killed in more than a year of shootings and suicide bombings claimed by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

Awfi is believed to have taken over leadership of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia after the killing last month of Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, who was shot dead just hours after his group announced they had killed a US hostage. Muqrin himself only took over operations after the killing in March of another leader, Khaled Ali Haj.

In those three months, suicide bombers blew up a Riyadh security headquarters, gunmen shot dead five Westerners in the Red Sea port of Yanbu and went on a killing spree in the Gulf city of Khobar, and militants killed three Americans in Riyadh.

On June 23 the government declared a one-month amnesty for militants who turn themselves in. Al-Qaeda has rejected the offer, which has almost expired.

Just four men have so far surrendered to authorities -- two in Saudi Arabia, one in Syria and a fourth, Khaled al-Harbi, in Iran. Harbi appeared with bin Laden in a videotape praising al-Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on US cities.

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