Saudi forces overrun villa where Islamic militants holed up
DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia – In a barrage of gunfire and explosions, Saudi special forces overran a seaside villa Tuesday where Islamic militants had been holed up, ending three days of heavy fighting that killed at least nine people.Security forces that swept into the building in the eastern city of Dammam found several charred bodies, apparently those of militants killed in explosions – suggesting the death toll from the fighting would rise.It was the fiercest clash in months in the kingdom’s two-year crackdown on al-Qaida-linked militants.Officials in the conservative, oil-rich nation – a key U.S. ally – say they have been winning that fight. In October, Saudi forces claimed to have killed the leader of al-Qaida in the kingdom in a series of raids in the capital and the holy city of Mecca.King Abdullah, who took over the throne last month after the death of his half brother, Fahd, has vowed to push ahead with the crackdown, and some have suggested he may intensify it.For two nights, special forces pounded the villa with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire before launching a major assault Tuesday.Soon after dawn, a helicopter swooped in and dropped special forces near the villa, buses arrived with reinforcements, and hours of gunfire erupted. At one point, an explosion blasted debris and white smoke out of a neighboring building.Four policemen and at least five suspected militants were killed since the fighting began Sunday, officials said.One was identified as the No. 3 on the country’s most-wanted list, Zaid Saad Zaid al-Samari, 31, a Saudi sought in connection with numerous terror attacks launched in the kingdom since May 2003.The fighting began when police raided a militant hide-out elsewhere in Dammam on Sunday. A group of heavily armed militants fled to the villa in the Mubarakiyah district and barricaded themselves inside.The battles prompted the U.S. Embassy to close the American consulate in Dhahran, 13 miles southwest of Dammam, on Monday.Security commanders had warned that the militants were heavily armed and appeared ready to fight to the death.Tuesday’s assault lasted for hours, with the frequent thud of RPG explosions. Black smoke billowed from the roof. Arab television at one point showed video of a bearded man, apparently one of the militants, clambering over the villa’s roof carrying what appeared to be an explosive belt.Three militants and two police officers were killed early Tuesday, a security official said in Riyadh. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.After noon, the fighting fell silent, and fire trucks and ambulances arrived. A security official confirmed the battle had ended. Later, special forces buses left the area, and by evening, police reopened streets around the district that had been cordoned for days.Since May 2003, Islamic militants have carried out numerous attacks, suicide bombings and kidnappings in Saudi Arabia. They have tended to target Westerners in a bid to cripple the economy. Westerners occupy important positions in the oil industry.Al-Qaida wants to topple the Saudi royal family because of its close ties with the West, particularly the United States.But Saudi forces have claimed a series of victories in the past year, killing or capturing all but one of the figures on a list of 26 most-wanted militants issued in December 2004. They have killed or captured at least five from a new list of 36 militants issued in June.”It is clear from the Dammam operation that terrorism still represents a threat in Saudi Arabia. However, their backbone has been broken,” said Khalil al-Khalil, a Saudi terrorism expert and member of the consultative council, which advises the king and government.”Now security forces are taking the initiative. They have the upper hand,” he said.The violence in Dammam flared as U.S. Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend met King Abdullah and other top Saudi officials Monday in Riyadh.
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