- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Saudi Arabia is holding 253 people with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network, the Saudi Interior minister said Tuesday.

Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told the kingdom's Okaz newspaper that 90 of the suspects have already been referred to courts for trial.

"We have sufficient evidence against these 90 to try them," said the minister, adding that the government had "detained a large number of people for questioning."

He said that so far Saudi security agencies also had released 150 people because "they had no ties to al Qaida" but they were still keeping 253 suspects to investigate the charges against them.

The minister gave no details of the charges brought against the detainees or how long had they been in custody.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Saudi Arabia faced immense pressure from its Western allies, particularly Washington, to act against religious extremists based in the kingdom. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who rammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudis. Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaida network is blamed for the attacks, was also born in Saudi Arabia, but has been stripped of his citizenship.

Consequently, Saudi authorities launched a major offensive to arrest those suspected of links to al Qaida and other extremist groups.

Meanwhile, a London-based Saudi opposition group, the Movement for Islamic Reforms reported Tuesday that an unidentified gunman has killed a senior Saudi official in the north of the kingdom.

Hamad al-Wardi, 50, was a secretary to the governor of the northern al Jouf province. He was gunned down Monday morning in Skaka town, close to the Jordanian border.

Wardi was ambushed while going to work in his car. The gunman escaped on a motorbike.

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