US hostage beheaded by al-Qa'ida captors

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The American engineer taken hostage by al-Qa'ida militants in Saudi Arabia was reported last night to have been beheaded by his captors.

The American engineer taken hostage by al-Qa'ida militants in Saudi Arabia was reported last night to have been beheaded by his captors.

Saudi security officials said that the body of the man, Paul Johnson, had been found just outside the capital, Riyadh. Soon afterwards Saudi authorities said that they had killed the al-Qa'ida leader responsible for the engineer's death.

The bureau chief of the al-Arabiya television network in Riyadh said he had seen video footage of the execution of Paul Johnson that had been released by the kidnappers. Three pictures of the American's corpse were also posted on to an extremists' website, including an image of a severed head.

The execution of Mr Johnson, 49, was the second time in five weeks that an American had been beheaded in the Middle East by groups linked to al-Qa'ida.

He was taken hostage last weekend by a group who demanded the Saudi authorities release a number of jailed militants in exchange for Mr Johnson's release. The government refused and, in recent days, thousands of Saudi security personnel were reportedly searching for him.

The group that took responsibility for Mr Johnson's execution called itself the Fallujah Brigade of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. In a statement accompanying the images of his body, the group referred to Mr Johnson, using his middle name. It said: "In answer to what we promised ... to kill the hostage Paul Marshall after the period is over ... the infidel got his fair treatment ... Let him taste something from what Muslims tasted who were long reached by Apache helicopter fire and missiles.

"We, God willing, will continue our road to fight the enemies of God."

At the time of his abduction last weekend, Mr Johnson was employed by the defence giant Lockheed Martin, working on US Apache helicopters.

Mr Johnson had worked in Saudi Arabia for the company for more than a decade and was married to his second wife, Thanom.

One of the photographs released showed a man's head, face toward the camera, being held by a hand. The others showed a body lying prone on a bed, with the severed head placed in the small of his back.

"To the Americans and whoever is their ally in the infidel and criminal world and their allies in the war against Islam, this action is punishment to them," the accompanying statement added. It is believed the group was headed by Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, accused of being the chief al-Qa'ida figure in Saudi Arabia.

Last night Saudi authorities said they had killed Mr Muqrin and two other extremists after security forces backed up by helicopters surrounded a property in the al-Malz neighbourhood. Mr Muqrin, 31, had reportedly trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, at the home of Mr Johnson's family in Eagleswood Township, New Jersey, friends and neighbours offered what support they could. An American flag and yellow ribbons were hung from the house of his sister, Donna Mayeux.

President Bush said yesterday: "We send our prayers and sympathies to [Mr Johnson's family] during this very troubling time. This murder ... shows the extreme nature of the enemy we face. These are barbaric people." The US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Oberwetter, said: "The inhumanity of the crime exceeds all boundaries of civilised people."

Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking tonight in Brussels at the close of an EU summit, said that he was shocked at "such an act of barbarism". Mr Blair expressed his sympathy for the family of Mr Johnson and added: "This shows the nature of the people we are fighting day in, day out, around the world."

Mr Johnson's execution follows a spate of suicide bombings and shootings in the kingdom over the past six weeks. Last weekend another American living in Saudi Arabia, Kenneth Scroggs, was shot dead by gunmen after pulling up outside his home in Riyadh. The US State Department has urged all 35,000 Americans in Saudi to leave the country.