Saudi Arabia went on the offensive yesterday, warning Islamist militants they will be crushed with an "iron fist" after deploying thousands of security troops to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to protect Ramadan pilgrims.
King Fahd warned overnight of "stiff retaliation" after a devastating suicide attack that killed 17 people at a Riyadh housing compound.
The Saudi monarch told a weekly cabinet meeting that the country "would hit hard the criminals who commit this type of act and those who command them."
"The retaliation will be stiff," he vowed. The kingdom "will act with an iron fist against all those who threaten the security of the country, its citizens and those who live there."
The declaration came after a security source revealed that at least 5,000 soldiers and police had been deployed in Mecca, where as many as 2.5 million Muslims were expected to celebrate the last 10 days of the fasting month of Ramadan.
The decision to deploy extra forces to the holiest city in Islam was reached after security forces smashed a suspected al-Qaeda cell last week and announced it had been preparing an attack on the faithful in Mecca, said the security source who refused to be named.
"In total there will be no fewer than 5,000 soldiers and police reinforcements in the Mecca region," he said. Press reports said the security contingent had been doubled compared to previous years.
Some two million foreign pilgrims and 500,000 Saudis were expected to throng Mecca over the last 10 days of the Muslim fasting month, which is due to conclude around Nov. 24-25.
More reinforcements would also be deployed in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam, the source added.
Deputy Hajj or Pilgrimage Minister Hatem Qadi yesterday told the Al-Hayat newspaper there had been no reduction in the numbers of pilgrims flowing into Mecca, which he estimated already at 1.5 million, despite the bloodshed.
Mecca has already been the scene of deadly clashes between suspected al-Qaeda gunmen and security forces.
The authorities said on Nov. 3 they had foiled a plot to attack pilgrims in the holiest city in Islam where two "terrorists" were shot dead. In mid-June police carried out a series of raids on suspected militant hideouts in Mecca, killing five men and arresting 12 others, five of whom were wounded.
The king's threat of retaliation appeared to leave little room for a mediation offer announced on Monday by a group of Saudi religious scholars and clerics.
"A group of learned men and Saudi clerics are now trying to set up a mechanism to launch a dialogue between the government and the youths who have carried out acts of violence, in an effort to halt the bloodshed," Sheikh Abdullah Nasser al-Sobeihi, one of the scholars, said on Monday.
"It's a mediation to build a bridge between the two sides -- the government and the wanted youths," he said, noting however that the mediators had yet to offer their services to the government.
"The aim of the dialogue is to provide a remedy to the crisis" and avoid new attacks, said the professor of psychology.
Suspected militants of al-Qaeda blew up a Riyadh housing compound at midnight Saturday, killing 17 people and wounding 122.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz vowed Monday that the killers would be caught.
He insisted the kingdom would not be destabilized, as US President George W. Bush offered full support.