Gunbattle at dawn in Madeenah

A top Saudi terrorist was killed in a gunbattle with security forces near the holy city of Madeenah yesterday. A policeman was also killed and two of his colleagues were injured.

The Interior Ministry said that gunfire erupted sometime after 4 a.m. on a stretch of road leaving Madeenah toward a popular camping destination on the outskirts of the city, killing the officer and Waleed ibn Mutlaq Al-Radadi, one of the Kingdom’s most-wanted militants.

One source said six policemen had been injured in the incident and are receiving treatment at King Fahd Hospital in Madeenah.

An Interior Ministry official said the shootout was linked to the investigation into the Feb. 26 cold-blooded murder of four unarmed French nationals about 90 km north of Madeenah.

On March 1, the ministry told a local Arabic daily that authorities had not ruled out Al-Radadi, a resident of Madeenah who appeared on a list of 36 most-wanted terrorists released by the government in 2005, as a suspect in the slaying of the Frenchmen.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), gunmen began firing at Saudi security forces as they were evacuating residents from the area.

The Interior Ministry did not say how many gunmen were involved in the attack, but reported that at least two security officers were injured during the skirmish.

SPA identified the slain officer as Dhafir ibn Abdullah Al-Nafeei. Funeral prayers for Al-Nafeei were said at al-Masjid an-Nabawee and attended by a large number of Saudis and expatriates including Ibrahim Al-Khattaf, acting deputy governor of the region.

Al-Radadi had been mentioned as a possible casualty of a shootout in September 2005 in Dammam. The reports were never confirmed.

Muhammad Bayazid, a worker at a gas station close to the scene, told Arab News the shooting took place while many families were leaving a wedding hall in the area. Muhammad Aslam, a mechanic at the same gas station, said he was sleeping inside his workshop when the shooting started. “I left the area soon after the shooting started,” he added. “The shooting was intermittent,” said a witness who did not want to be named. He had earlier informed Arab News by text message of the shootout.

“There are many police cars and ambulances in the vicinity of where the shootout is taking place. We see residents who live near the property running away from the area,” his message read.

The eyewitness later said by telephone that he was camping with friends near Al-Oyoun Road on the way to Al-Baida, about 20 km north of Madeenah. The area is popular with campers for its greenery and mild temperatures. Date farms and residential properties flank the road. It was one of these properties where the shootout took place.

The witness described some of the sounds as “explosions”. SPA reported that the gunmen were using grenades. Worried that he and his friends would get caught in a crossfire, the men left the area, escorted by police.

He said local residents were vocally supportive of the efforts of the authorities during the operation. They also praised the relentless efforts of the security forces in confronting terrorists. He said gunfire persisted after the fajr (dawn) prayer.

Officials said the police raid was part of the ongoing investigation into the slaying of the French nationals who were part of a group of nine people. In that incident, three men in a vehicle opened fire on the group which was reportedly lost while looking for the remnants of the Hejaz Railway.

It was reported by the local media at the time that a witness said the attackers methodically separated the men and the 17-year-old boy from the group and executed them. One of the men died while his wife was trying to get him medical attention. The boy died the next day in hospital. Three women, a girl and a boy survived the attack.

On March 6, the Interior Ministry announced that it was looking for two men – Abdullah Sayer Muawad Al-Muhammadi and Nasser Latef Al-Balawi – in connection with the killings. The government has offered a SR7 million ($1.9 million) reward for information leading to their capture.

It was unclear if any suspect has been detained or if authorities believe Al-Muhammadi and Al-Balawi were involved in yesterday’s shootout.