Monday, July 28, 2003

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — The government’s crackdown on suspected terrorists moved into the kingdom’s religious heartland yesterday, with police killing six militants in a shootout.

Police also arrested at least four others who had been providing the militants with shelter at a remote farm in the Qassim region north of Riyadh, the Interior Ministry announced on television.

Two security officers were also killed, the ministry said, adding that seven policemen were among nine others who were injured.

The operation started late Sunday night after a tip-off that one of 19 militants wanted since May 6 had been given refuge by sympathizers on a remote farm, a Saudi security source told The Washington Times. The 19 had escaped after their hide-out in Riyadh was raided.

It took three days to track down the militants’ hide-out, the source added. Police encountered four men, three woman and six children on the farm who denied that they were hiding anyone.

“Eventually it was discovered that a gang was inside the farmhouse, and they decided to fight to the death with the weapons they had, rather than take the opportunity they were given to surrender,” the source said, adding that they were mostly in their teens and early 20s.

“The real al Qaeda cells were smashed months ago,” Nawaf Obeid, a leading Saudi security analyst, said in an interview. “Those that are remaining, like the cell raided [Sunday], are amateurs in comparison.”

Qassim, the scene of the shootout, is the spiritual heartland of Saudi Arabia’s austere brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, and was among the regions where 16 Saudi nationals were arrested last week for terrorist-related activities. The 16 were linked to al Qaeda, according to Interior Minister Prince Naif.

Security forces uncovered a huge underground cache of weapons they had stockpiled, as well as 200 tons of bomb-making equipment and chemicals. A number of militants escaped, but it was not clear if those killed Sunday were part of the same cell.

Security forces are still carrying out a nationwide hunt for other arms caches believed to have been buried by terrorist cells, with the holy city of Mecca the main focus in the ongoing operation.

Saudi Arabia intensified its hunt for militants and their supporters after the simultaneous suicide attacks on three Western residential compounds May 12, which killed 26 persons and nine of the attackers.

A U.S. Congress report on the September 11 attacks released last week accused Saudi Arabia of not doing enough to counter terrorism. The unclassified version of the report also said that one suspected organizer still at large paid many of the expenses of two September 11 hijackers and “had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia.” It did not say if Saudi government funds were involved.

Saudi officials have rejected those conclusions. “We are confident about ourselves, and it is just a matter of mere talk,” Defense Minister Prince Sultan was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency Sunday night.

“The American administration under the leadership of [President] Bush has declared officially that the kingdom is not a party in these issues,” Prince Sultan said.

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