RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Security forces seized a walled compound Tuesday where Islamic militants had been barricaded for days, ending the kingdom’s largest gunbattle with armed extremists. At least 14 of the militants were killed, including top leaders of the Saudi branch of al-Qaida, state television said.
Six others were captured in the three days of fierce firefights in the desert town of Rass, state TV said, citing security officials after the battle was over.
For nearly 48 hours, the gunmen had been holed up in the villa compound about 220 miles northwest of the capital Riyadh and near Buraydah, a known stronghold of Islamic fundamentalists. Surrounded by hundreds of Saudi special forces, they had a large arsenal of weapons and fired heavy volleys of automatic weapons fire and grenades.
In a statement read on Saudi television, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah congratulated the security forces, who had “demonstrated their courage in facing up to terror acts. We thank each one of them for their heroic deeds.”
The death toll is the highest in a single fight since the kingdom’s “war on terror” began in May 2003 when suicide bombers attacked three compounds for foreign residents in the Riyadh.
Among the dead were two militants on Saudi Arabia’s list of most-wanted terrorists, said a senior military official in Rass, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Once the standoff was over, some forces withdrew, while others combed the area, collecting documents and searching for weapons and evidence, the official said.
The battle began Sunday morning when security forces, acting on a tip, arrived at another building in Rass. Militants opened fire with automatic rifles and grenades, sparking a clash with police that killed three suspected terrorists. The rest fled to the villa.
During the shootout, one militant surrendered and two others were wounded and captured.
Officials say 35 police were wounded during the fighting in Rass.
The senior military official in Rass said among those killed were Moroccan Kareem Altohami al-Mojati and Saudi Saud Homood Obaid al-Otaibi, who were ranked as No. 4 and No. 7 respectively on Saudi Arabia’s list of 26 most-wanted al-Qaida-linked terror suspects, issued in December 2003.
Al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, could not confirm that the two wanted militants were among those killed.
Arab TV stations, including Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, cited security sources as saying al-Mojati and al-Otaibi had been killed.
Previously, the highest number of militants killed in a single battle with Saudi forces was six in July 2003, when police raided a farm in al-Qassim. Al-Qaida-allied terrorists have claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings, gunbattles and bomb attacks targeting Saudi security forces and Western interests in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom.
Saudi newspapers have carried profiles of the two wanted militants. Al-Mojati, the Moroccan, is a battle-hardened fighter who had fought in Afghanistan and is described as a supporter of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The papers claimed al-Mojati had helped plan the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 33 bystanders and 12 suicide bombers.
Al-Otaibi is said to be one of two Saudi militants running al-Qaida’s branch in Saudi Arabia. Last year, he purportedly posted an Internet statement rejecting an amnesty offered by Saudi ruler King Fahd, who promised militants their lives would be spared if they surrendered.