RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi security forces killed two militants in a fierce clash in Riyadh and detained the wife and children of the suspected al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, officials said Wednesday.
An Interior Ministry statement said three other militants were hurt in the clash in the capital Tuesday night, which security sources said broke out after the gunmen accidentally detonated explosives in a house in the north of the capital.
The ministry did not say whether Saleh al-Awfi, believed to be the al Qaeda chief in the kingdom, was involved in the fighting. A security source denied speculation he had been killed and said there was no indication he was wounded either.
The clash was the latest confrontation between government forces and al Qaeda backers bent on toppling the pro-U.S. leaders of the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The Interior Ministry said the shooting broke out in north Riyadh’s busy King Fahd district, where security forces were investigating a site used by supporters of “the deviant and corrupt ideology” — a reference to al Qaeda sympathizers.
They came under intense fire from gunmen armed with bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, said the ministry statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Security forces returned fire at the gunmen “killing two of them and wounding three, who were arrested, as well as detaining the family of the wanted man Saleh al-Awfi, made up of his wife and three children,” the statement said.
Three members of the security forces were lightly wounded.
During the fighting a second group of armed men opened fire on security forces before escaping, the agency said. Police found weapons, explosives and documents at the site, it added.
Some 90 policemen and civilians, many of them foreigners, have been killed in more than a year of shootings and suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia claimed by al Qaeda.
Awfi is believed to have taken over leadership of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia after the killing in June of Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, who was shot dead just hours after his group announced they had killed an American hostage.
Muqrin himself only took over operations after the killing in March of another leader, Khaled Ali Haj.
In those three months suicide bombers blew up a Riyadh security headquarters, gunmen shot dead five Westerners in the Red Sea port of Yanbu and went on a killing spree in the Gulf city of Khobar, and militants killed three Americans in Riyadh.
On June 23 the government declared a one-month amnesty for militants who turned themselves in. Al Qaeda has rejected the offer, which has almost run out.
Just four men have so far surrendered to authorities — two in Saudi Arabia, one in Syria and a fourth, Khaled al-Harbi, in Iran. Harbi appeared with Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a videotape praising the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.
Saudi Arabia said Sunday, 27 wanted men had been handed over to its security forces from foreign countries. It was not clear if any had surrendered under the amnesty.
The Interior Ministry said Wednesday security forces were still hunting for the militants who got away from the Tuesday night clash in King Fahd district, the scene of fighting earlier this month.
Residents saw armored vehicles spread through the area and two people were detained. Earlier they said there had been sporadic shooting and reported seeing one police car with smashed windows as security forces surrounded the area.
A security source said one suspect got away by hijacking a private car. (Additional reporting by Khalid al-Fadli)