updated 7/23/2004 10:37:24 AM ET 2004-07-23T14:37:24

Negotiations for the surrender of the man believed to be al-Qaida’s chief in the Arabian Peninsula have begun, a Saudi cleric said Friday.

Sheik Safar al-Hawaly, speaking to The Associated Press from the southern Saudi province al-Baha, said an intermediary was sent to Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi on Thursday night. He would not say where al-Aoofi was.

Al-Hawaly said he had previously mediated with extremists on behalf of the Saudi government.

Saudi officials were not immediately available to comment Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

Government security officials raided al-Aoofi’s hideout Tuesday but have not said where they believe he is. Al-Aoofi’s wife and three children have been detained by Saudi authorities since the raid, in which police found the head of slain American hostage Paul M. Johnson Jr. in a freezer.

Johnson, a 49-year-old engineer with Apache helicopter maker Lockheed Martin, was kidnapped and beheaded by militants in Saudi Arabia last month.

Saudi King Fahd offered a month-long amnesty to militants who turned themselves in, saying those who came forward would be spared the death penalty. The deadline for that amnesty expired at midnight Thursday.

However, the offer failed to bring in hardcore militants responsible for the recent killings of scores of Saudis and foreigners. The attacks, generally targeting foreign workers, have been blamed on al-Qaida and sympathizers of the anti-Western terror network.

The Saudi Interior Ministry, in a statement Thursday seeking to encourage last-minute surrenders, had said those who contacted authorities before the amnesty’s expiration could still benefit from the offer even if they were not able to turn themselves in until later.

Six wanted men have surrendered under the amnesty, including Khaled al-Harb, a confidant of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, and 27 others have been repatriated from a number of countries.

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