Saudi security forces captured a top militant and a number of other suspects Thursday after a firefight in Riyadh in which five policemen were killed.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the wanted militant’s father was also killed and that two other policemen were injured in the clash in the east of the Saudi capital a day before the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
The kingdom is battling a surge in violence believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network. Suicide bomb attacks have killed at least 50 people on Riyadh housing compounds since May.
“The captured terrorist is very important,” an Interior Ministry official told Reuters at the scene of the clash, adding that the man was not on a list of 24 militants wanted by the government.
The statement said police seized grenades, automatic rifles and five revolvers after raiding a house in the residential district of Faiha where the suspected militants were staying. It said police had been tipped off by the wanted man’s father.
Holy journey set to begin
Riyadh is about 500 miles east of Mecca, where more than 2 million pilgrims are due to embark on the five-day hajj ritual Friday.
Diplomats say the Saudi government is worried that militants will strike during the haj to undermine the ruling family, whose authority largely stems from its custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites.
“It is a great tradition to worry at the time of the haj, and this year they are really fastening their seat belts,” a Western diplomat said, referring to the royal family.
Prince Nayef, the interior minister, said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was prepared to confront any threats to the security of the pilgrims. This year’s haj, the first since last year’s suicide blasts in Riyadh, also follows the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which has drawn Muslim militants toward its northern neighbor.
Saudi Arabia, which insists that the haj should be solely a religious affair, has deployed a vast army of police in and around Mecca, including a special “anti-demonstrations” unit.
Last month, Saudi Arabia named 26 top suspects wanted in connection with “terrorist” operations in the kingdom and has offered a $1.9 million reward to anyone who helped thwart a future militant attack.
Since then, security forces have killed two of those militants.