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Saudis find head of slain hostage

Riyadh, July 21 (Reuters): Saudi forces found the head of a US hostage in a fridge at a militants hideout where they killed two wanted Islamists and seized weapons, including a surface-to-air missile, officials said today.

They said the head of Paul Johnson, 49, who was killed by supporters of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last month, was found when security forces stormed a villa in Riyadh last night.

Security forces also found a surface-to-air missile, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, pistols, hand grenades, ammunition, computers, cash and nitrates and aluminium powder — used to make explosives.

This was the latest confrontation between government forces and al Qaida supporters bent on toppling the pro-US leaders of the world’s biggest oil exporter.

One of the slain militants, Isa al Oshan, was on the list of 26 most wanted al Qaida militants, the officials said. Johnson, employed by US helicopter gunship maker Lockheed Martin, was killed on June 18 after the expiry of a militant deadline for authorities to free Islamist prisoners. A videotape of his beheading appeared on the Internet.

An interior ministry statement said three other militants were hurt in the clash, which security officials said followed the gunmen accidentally detonating explosives in the house in the north of the capital.

The interior ministry said the shooting occurred in north Riyadh’s busy King Fahd district, where security forces were investigating a house used by supporters of “the deviant and corrupt ideology” — a reference to al Qaida sympathisers. They came under intense fire from gunmen armed with bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, said the ministry statement.

Security forces returned fire at the gunmen ... “killing two of them and wounding three, who were arrested, as well as detaining the wife and three children of Saleh al-Awfi”, believed to be the al Qaida chief in the kingdom.

The ministry did not say whether al-Awfi was involved in the fighting. A security source denied speculation he had been killed and said there was no indication he was wounded either.

Three members of the security forces were lightly wounded.

Awfi is believed to have taken over leadership of al Qaida in Saudi Arabia after the killing in June of Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, who was shot dead just hours after his group announced they had killed Johnson. Saudi television footage from the scene showed a blackened building with bullet holes, charred and broken walls and blood stains on the floor and walls.

Al Qaida supporters have waged a 14-month campaign of suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia targeting foreigners, government institutions and oil industry sites. Some 90 policemen and civilians, many of them foreigners, have been killed in the violence.

Since April militants have blown up a Riyadh security headquarters, shot dead five westerners in the Red Sea port of Yanbu, gone on a killing spree in the Gulf city of Khobar and killed three Americans in Riyadh. On June 23 the government declared a one-month amnesty for militants who turned themselves in. Al Qaida has rejected the offer.

Just four men have so far surrendered to authorities — two in Saudi Arabia, one in Syria and a fourth, Khaled al-Harbi, in Iran. Harbi appeared with bin Laden in a videotape praising the September 11, 2001, attacks on US cities. Saudi Arabia said on Sunday 27 wanted men had been handed over to its security forces from foreign countries.

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