- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Security forces battled the biggest group of Islamic militants in a nearly two-year campaign against terror, killing seven in a gunbattle yesterday and cornering up to 10 others in an isolated desert town, Saudi officials said.

The forces were closing in on the building where the remaining militants were holed up and hoped to take them alive, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Mansour al-Turki said.

During the first two days of the standoff, police had to seal off a girls’ elementary school in Ar-Rass in central Saudi Arabia, 220 miles northwest of the capital. When the fighting quieted, the teachers and students were evacuated, Brig. al-Turki said.

He said the security forces did not intend to flush out the militants soon.

“As long as there are no hostages involved, there’s no reason to rush. We have no problem in giving the operation as much time as it needs,” he said, adding that the militants were well armed and appeared to have plenty of ammunition.

The death toll is the highest since the kingdom’s own “war on terror” began in May 2003. A number of security personnel have been wounded.

Brig. al-Turki said up to 10 extremists were thought to be in the building — “the largest number of militants cornered in any single operation.”

The Interior Ministry said the seven killed so far were suspected members of the al Qaeda terror group, led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Brig. al-Turki said the government did not know the militants’ allegiance.

“We consider any terrorist to be linked somehow to al Qaeda, affected by it or sympathizing with it. But we still do not have a breakdown of the identities of those killed or those still holed up,” he said.

The fighting began Sunday morning when security forces, acting on a tip, arrived at a building in Ar-Rass’ Jawazat district. Militants opened fire with automatic rifles and grenades.

Three militants were killed. The remainder fled to a nearby building that is under construction. The fighting continued there yesterday.

Saudi television showed video of the frightened schoolgirls who were evacuated — some looking disoriented, others crying. Parents who collected the children condemned the militants.

Authorities also evacuated residents of a nearby building.

Ar-Rass is near Buraydah, a known stronghold of Islamic fundamentalists in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has experienced numerous Islamic militant attacks since May 2003, when suicide bombers attacked three compounds for foreign residents in Riyadh. Police have arrested hundreds of suspects in the subsequent crackdown.

Saudi authorities, who have tended to blame al Qaeda for the attacks, issued a list of the country’s 26 most wanted militants. All but five on the list have been arrested or killed. It is not known whether any of the militants killed in Ar-Rass are on the list.

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