'Terrorists' killed in Mecca shootout

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Suspects arrested following shootouts that killed five militants and two police officers in the holy city of Mecca may be linked to al-Qaida, a Saudi security official said.

Saudi authorities said at least five people were arrested following a raid on a bomb-filled, booby-trapped apartment late on Saturday, foiling what officials described as an "imminent" terrorist attack.

"I believe they are members of al-Qaida cells because I see similarities in the weapons used and the way they immediately shoot at the police when cornered, like in Riyadh, Medina and Hael," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said investigations were still ongoing.

The suspects appear to be al-Qaida members connected to the suicide bombings on Western residential compounds in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that killed 35 people, including nine Americans and nine Saudi suicide bombers, the official told The Associated Press.

The official said the suspects were planning to carry out attacks in Mecca, according to information learned during interrogations Sunday. He did not identify any intended targets.

The official said Saturday's violence started when police in Mecca tried to stop the car carrying the suspects at a checkpoint. The suspects fired on the police, killing two of them, before fleeing to the apartment building.

Saudi security agents later raided an apartment in the al-Khalidiya district, about three miles (five kilometers) from the main Mecca mosque, at 9:30 p.m. local time where "a group of terrorists ... were preparing an imminent terrorist act," the official said.

Five suspected militants died in the gun battle initiated by the "terrorists," he said. Their nationalities were not given. Five security men and four neighborhood residents were slightly injured.

The official said the apartment was booby-trapped and ready to explode. Some 72 bombs of different sizes were found with numerous other weapons, including semiautomatic rifles and knifes, communication devices, bomb-making materials and masks.

The holy city of Mecca, located some 450 miles (720 kilometers) west of Riyadh, welcomes millions of Muslim pilgrims each year from all over the world to pray at the birthplace of Islam's seventh-century prophet, Muhammad.

"The danger is that some of these people might be affected by terrorist ideas. And because millions come here every year, it's security is very important to us," said the official.

The Saudi Interior Ministry issued a statement saying two Chadians, an Egyptian and a Saudi were among at least five people arrested in the raid. The fifth was not identified. Numerous other suspects were arrested later in Mecca. It did not elaborate.

Saudi authorities have cracked down on suspected militants since the May 12 bombings, which were seen as attacks not just against foreigners but also the ruling Saudi royal family for its close ties to the United States.

U.S. and Saudi investigators have been jointly probing the Riyadh bombings, which have been linked to al-Qaida, the Muslim terror network blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

Saudi's interior minister Saturday said at least 30 people have been identified as being linked to the bombings, including people currently in custody and those who died during or following the attacks. It is unclear how many people have been arrested.

On May 31, Yosif Salih Fahd Ala'yeeri was killed in a gunfight with police in the northern Saudi city of Hael. Ala'yeeri was allegedly carrying a letter written by al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

Ala'yeeri was among 19 al-Qaida operatives wanted following the May 6 discovery of a Riyadh weapons cache. The group was said to be taking orders directly from bin Laden and linked to the May 12 bombings.

Earlier this month, Saudi authorities had announced the arrests of numerous people in Medina, 870 kilometers (540 miles) west of the capital.

Saudi authorities, accused of acting too slowly against Islamic extremism after the Sept. 11 attacks, have taken pains to show their commitment to fighting terrorism since similar extremism hit home. Support for extremists is evident among some in the kingdom, birthplace of bin Laden and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

Security was unusually tight in Mecca Sunday, with troops searching cars at checkpoints on the outskirts and throughout the city. Police patrolled inside and outside Mecca's Al-Nur hospital, where those wounded Saturday were taken.

Abdul Khaliq Raheem Sheik, a 50-year-old Indian driver being treated for cuts, said three masked men holding guns had approached him earlier Saturday as he washed his employer's car in al-Khalidiya.

Sheik said the men demanded he drive them from the area. When he refused, they shot the car's windows and he was injured by flying glass.

The three then drove away, leaving Sheik behind. It was unclear if they were being sought or had been already killed or arrested.