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Saudi forces in shootout with suspected militants

From Nic Robertson and Henry Schuster

Police at the scene of the shootout
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Saudi security forces target suspected militants.
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Saudi security forces, police and national guard units have staged a major operation against suspected al Qaeda militants in the capital, killing at least two and arresting the wife of the fifth-most-wanted man in the kingdom, the Saudi Interior Ministry said.

Three other suspected militants were wounded, the ministry said.

The ministry would not confirm that among the dead and wounded may be Saleh al-Oufi, the current leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Oufi's wife was arrested in the operation and three of his children were detained, the ministry said. There were other women in the house and they also were detained, it said.

Al-Oufi, a former prison guard, is fifth on Saudi Arabia's list of most-wanted terrorists.

At the center of the cordon was what sources described as a major safehouse, which contained light weapons and homemade explosives.

Heavy exchanges of gunfire took place near the house, and al-Oufi's wife was arrested inside, the security sources said.

The sources said it's believed the raid disrupted a planned operation.

Security forces and other units began encircling suspected militants in the King Fahd district in the northern part of the city late Tuesday.

Residents in the district told CNN the gunbattle began around 11:15 p.m. (4:15 p.m. ET) and was intense for several minutes.

Police carrying automatic weapons and wearing flak jackets blocked off all streets in one portion of the district, an area of about one square mile. That section is made up of residential neighborhoods and shopping areas.

More than 100 law enforcement vehicles -- including armored vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns and trailers carrying portable floodlights -- descended on the area along with five busloads of security force reinforcements.

Sources said that while forces surrounded the suspected safehouse, a group of suspects tried to break through the police cordon but were turned back.

Some security forces then pursued that group, which fled in a Jeep, firing their weapons.

There is speculation that the operation was undertaken based on information gathered from the interrogation of some 61 people who have taken advantage of the government's offer of leniency for wanted militants.

The monthlong leniency offer expires Friday. Crown Prince Abdullah has said that after that date militants will face forceful consequences.

The government said the program exempts terror suspects from the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but does not exempt them from civil suits filed by their victims' families.

Dozens of militants accept offer

In recent days, 27 militants from outside the country and 30 from inside Saudi borders have turned themselves in, the Interior Ministry said.

Of the 61 who have surrendered, two are said to be linked to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. (Full story)

Al Qaeda supporters have waged a yearlong campaign of violence targeting Westerners, government sites and oil workers in the kingdom, prompting some foreigners to flee the country, the world's biggest oil exporter.

Othman Al-Omari, number 19 on Saudi Arabia's most wanted list of 26, accepted the offer of limited amnesty, according to Saudi sources. He turned himself in June 27.

He was a business partner of Shaban Al Shihri -- the first al Qaeda member to accept the offer when he turned himself in June 25.

The amnesty program was announced days after U.S. engineer Paul Johnson Jr., who was working in the kingdom, was kidnapped and beheaded June 18.

His kidnappers had demanded release of all al Qaeda prisoners and the departure of all Westerners from the kingdom.

Shortly after photographs of Johnson's body were posted on an Internet site, Abdel Aziz Al-Muqrin, the self-proclaimed military leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and three other terrorists were killed in a gunbattle with Saudi police, and 12 other suspected members of the cell were captured.

Shortly after al-Muqrin's death, al-Oufi was named the al Qaeda chief in Saudi.

Al Qaeda is blamed for a wave of terror attacks stretching for more than a year.

Al Qaeda attacks during the weekend of May 29 in the Saudi oil city of Khobar left at least 22 people dead -- 19 of them from other countries.

A car bombing last November believed to be the work of al Qaeda struck a mostly Arab neighborhood near Riyadh's diplomatic quarter, killing at least 17 people and wounding 122 others.

In May of 2003, triple al Qaeda car bombings in Riyadh killed 23 people, plus the 12 bombers, at three complexes housing Westerners.

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