Terror campaign halted by raid on militants, say Saudis

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Sixteen suspected terrorists were caught as they were about to launch attacks on "key installations" through Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced yesterday. A massive cache of arms and explosives was also discovered, and militants who escaped were being hunted by security forces, the ministry added.

The arrests came during a three-day sweep on farms, rest-stops and private homes in the capital, Riyadh, the nearby region of Qassim and unspecified locations in the Eastern Prov-ince, home to almost all of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves.

Qassim is known as the "Koran Belt" of Saudi Arabia, and its city of Buraidah is the spiritual heartland of Wahhabism, the kingdom's austere brand of Islam. But this is the first time since the attacks on Westerners' compounds in May that killed 34, including nine suicide bombers, that terrorist activity has been reported in this part of the kingdom, indicating that oil installations may have been among the "key installations" vaguely identified as targets by the government.

Despite a fatwa issued in the 1990s by Osama bin Laden stating that the oilfields should not be sabotaged, they remain vulnerable. Last year, an attempt to bomb Ras Tanura, the world's largest oil terminal complex, was foiled, but Western diplomats say the intention of destroying these oilfields still exists.

Footage on Saudi TV yesterday of the raided hide-outs showed automatic rifles, weapons, binoculars, mobile phones, surveillance cameras, bullet-proof vests, passports for several nationalities, forged identity cards, cars, motorcycles, computers and cash-boxes used to collect donations.

Saudi Arabia launched a crackdown after the Riyadh bombings. More than 100 Islamists have been arrested and thousands interrogated. The United States and Saudi Arabia both blame al-Qa'ida for the attacks. Prince Naif, the Interior Minister, had announced that authorities foiled several terror plots against foreigners, some bigger in scope than the one in Riyadh.

Terrorists and security forces have been killed in gunfights in Islam's holiest city, Mecca, and in the northern city of al-Jouf. Ten from a list of 19 al-Qa'ida suspects released by the government before the May bombings have either been arrested or killed.

The mastermind of the Riyadh attacks, Ali Abdul Rahman al-Faqaasi al-Ghamdi, is said to have surrendered to the government last month in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

¿ The FBI lost its chance to uncover the 11 September plot by failing to investigate evidence that two of the suicide hijackers were living with a bureau informant, a US congressional inquiry is expected to report this week. Newsweek says the study also contains new evidence suggesting a Saudi Arabian government agent might have been an associate of the al-Qa'ida attackers.