RIYADH: Saudi authorities have killed al-Qaeda leader Abdulaziz al-Muqrin and three other prominent militants after they beheaded US hostage Paul Johnson.
State television broadcast pictures of the bodies of Muqrin and the three others, saying all had been involved in the recent surge of violence against foreigners in the kingdom, and said 12 others had been arrested.
This is a massive blow to the militants, a Saudi security source said.
The men were killed in a shootout on Friday night as they tried to dispose of the body of Johnson, who was beheaded after the Saudi government refused to free Islamist prisoners by a deadline set by Muqrin's cell.
Muqrin's group had posted photographs of Johnson's severed head on a website, six days after the 49-year-old aviation engineer was kidnapped in Riyadh.
The televised pictures of the four dead militants appeared aimed at refuting a purported al-Qaeda statement posted on an Islamist website which denied Muqrin the kingdom's most wanted man was dead.
An Interior Ministry statement read out on television named the other dead militants as Faisal al-Dakheel, Turki al-Muteiri and Ibrahim al-Dreihim. Dakheel was wanted for killings including that of an American here, it said.
Muteiri was one of the militants who escaped after an attack on foreigners in the Gulf city of Khobar in May and Dreihim had been involved in preparation of the bombing of an expatriate residential compound in Riyadh in November, it said.
Special security forces who have been following the crimes of murder and the kidnapping of residents in Riyadh uncovered the presence of four people with direct links to those events at 9pm on Friday (1am Malaysian time yesterday) at a petrol station in Malaz (a district of Riyadh), the ministry statement said.
Immediately security forces surrounded them and there was a fierce exchange of fire which resulted in the deaths of all four. It also resulted in the death of one member of the security forces and the wounding of two others.
The statement said security forces found three cars, including one used in an attack earlier this month against a BBC television crew here.
They also found guns, three rocket propelled grenades, 16 pipe bombs, 10 hand grenades and currency worth around US$37,000 (RM140,600), it said.
The 32-year-old Muqrin, driven by hatred for the United States and its Arab allies, was Saudi Arabia's most wanted al-Qaeda leader.
He was a veteran of Bosnia's 1992-95 war and one of a hit squad that tried to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995, said Mohsen al-Awajy, an expert on Islamic militants.
The US embassy, in a statement issued before Muqrin's death, said more attacks were likely and the State Department warned Americans of a risk of violence across the Gulf region, after urging many to leave Saudi Arabia this week.
Johnson was the third American killed in Riyadh in the past 10 days, stepping up pressure on thousands of US citizens and other foreigners vital to the economy of the world's biggest oil exporter and on the Saudi royal family, which al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden has sworn to overthrow for its close alliance with Washington.
Shortly before Muqrin's death, his group published three pictures on an Islamist website of what looked like Johnson's severed, bloodied head. They showed the head placed on the back of a body in orange overalls and with a knife propped up against the moustachioed face.
Johnson worked for defence contractor Lockheed Martin on the manufacture of Apache helicopter gunships, used by both US and Israeli military forces a job his killers said justified his execution.
The beheading followed a spate of bombings and attacks on oil companies and expatriate workers blamed on Muqrin's men.
Militants killed 22 foreigners at oil offices and residential compounds in Khobar last month.
World leaders condemned the beheading, with US President George W. Bush calling the killers militants thugs and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying the slaying was an act of barbarism.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said a US departure from Saudi Arabia would be a victory for extremists who beheaded Johnson.
If we leave, then the terrorists have won, Powell said.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said these kinds of brutal acts do not help anybody. Agencies
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