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Saudi Al Qaeda Leader Slain

Al Qaeda's leader in Saudi Arabia was killed Thursday during clashes with police in the western city of Medina, the Interior Ministry said.

Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi was among six al Qaeda militants reported killed Thursday during police raids on numerous locations in the holy city of Medina and the capital, Riyadh, security officials told The Associated Press.

Al-Aoofi, a Saudi aged in his late 30s, and another militant were killed during one of seven raids conducted by heavily armed police on locations in Medina, according to a statement issued by the office of Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki.

Al-Aoofi was considered to be the top leader of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's militant network in this conservative Gulf country, which has been rocked by multiple terror attacks since 2003.

He was among two at large members of a list of 26 most-wanted militants that was issued in December 2003. The remaining militant is another Saudi, Talib Saud Abdullah al-Talib, while the others had either been captured or killed.

It was not immediately clear if the other militant killed alongside al-Aoofi or four others slain in Riyadh on Thursday were on a separate list of 36 suspects issued recently.

Interior Ministry officials also said at least one militant was arrested in Riyadh and 10 were detained in Medina, 450 miles west of the capital, where the country's new monarch, King Abdullah, was visiting to meet Islamic clerics and tribal leaders.

According to the Interior Ministry statement, police raided six al Qaeda hideouts in Medina near the mosque where Islam's Prophet Muhammad was buried before coming across a seventh where al-Aoofi and two others were holed up.

"They (the militants) opened fire heavily on the security forces and the pedestrians" before police returned fire, the statement added.

"Investigators were able to prove through verification procedures that one of the two killed is the wanted Saleh al-Aoofi," the statement added.

The identity of the other slain militant was not released, while the third was wounded and arrested.

Al-Aoofi, a former prison guard, had reportedly fought in Chechnya and traveled to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

There he met men who would later become his comrades in the Saudi terror network, according to Saudi newspaper reports. Among them was one of the nine suicide bombers in the May 12, 2003, car bombing of foreigners' housing compounds in Riyadh that killed 35 people.

In Riyadh, police also raided an apartment in the capital's northern al-Massef neighborhood at about 6 a.m. Thursday, sparking a firefight with militants holed up inside.

"Security forces during the early morning stormed a number of places in Riyadh and Medina, where it is suspected some of those affiliated to the deviant group were hiding," al-Turki said in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

Authorities here regularly refer to militants belonging to the Saudi branch of al Qaeda as the "deviant group."

Another security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press, said four militants were killed in the Riyadh shootout, during which a hand grenade was thrown at the police but did not explode.

The Interior Ministry statement said human remains found at the Riyadh site indicated that at least one of the slain suspects had been blown apart in an explosion, the nature of which was not immediately clear.

The nationalities of the militants killed in Riyadh and the third who was arrested were not immediately clear.

Police helicopters hovered overhead the Riyadh apartment as security forces sealed off the area, preventing pedestrians or vehicles entering or leaving the scene.

After the clashes ended, police entered the apartment and found weapons, explosives and various documents inside, according to the Interior Ministry statement.

Since May 2003, Islamic militants have carried out numerous suicide bombings and kidnappings and have regularly battled security forces. The attacks, which have tended to target Westerners and housing complexes were Westerners live, have been blamed on al Qaeda and its allies.

Saudi forces claim to have gotten the upper hand against terror cells, killing or capturing all but three of the figures on a previous most wanted list of 25 militants.