Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Saudis claim arrests foil terrorist plot

AL-QAEDA LINK?The government said the arrest of 16 people in a string of raids over the last five days prevented attacks on several installation around the kingdom

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Saudi government announced Monday that it had captured a terrorist cell of 16 people and uncovered a cache of weapons and explosives, foiling a series of attacks on key installations around the country.

The government has been engaged in operations against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network since three suicide attacks on expatriate compounds in Riyadh in May that killed 25 people, including nine Americans.

The arrests were made in the past five days and the suspects are undergoing interrogation.

A Saudi interior ministry official declined to say whether there was a link between the arrests and the May attacks.

The official said a "number of cells" had been uncovered. He added: "There are still suspects we are looking for."

Although 15 of the 19 men involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington were Saudis, its government remained in a state of denial about al-Qaeda roots in the kingdom. That changed with the May attacks.

Since then the Saudi government has admitted it has a problem and its security forces have mounted a series of raids against al-Qaeda suspects, in which police have arrested at least 125 alleged militants and killed others in gun battles.

The arrests announced yesterday were in Riyadh, al-Qasim north of Riyadh, and the Eastern Pro-vince. Arms caches were found hidden underground, according to the interior ministry.

Saudi television showed automatic rifles, rocket-propelled gre-nades, ammunition and bullet-proof vests. Also said to be in the haul were 72kg of explosives, detonators and bags containing 20 tonnes of chemicals that could be used to make bombs. The security forces, according to the television station, also found forged identity papers.

The arrests will be welcomed by the US but there is lingering suspicion in Washington that the Saudi government has not been as vigorous in pursuit of al-Qaeda as it could have been.

Among those arrested since the May 12 attacks is Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdii, aged 30, described by the US being one of the most senior al-Qaeda people in Saudi Arabia, with likely knowledge of most of its operatives. The US claimed he fought with bin Laden at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, last year.

Police say they have foiled numerous plots in raids on suspected terror groups, including a June 15 operation in Mecca that killed five militants said to be linked to the Riyadh attacks.

Five British men are facing long prison sentences for alleged involvement in an earlier string of bombings. They were arrested before the Saudis acknowledged they had an al-Qaeda problem. At the time the Saudis claimed the bombings were part of a turf war between foreign nationals for control of the illegal alcohol trade. Campaigners in Britain say the men were falsely arrested and blamed for bombs that were the work of al-Qaeda.

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