RASS, Saudi Arabia – Security forces stormed a walled compound Tuesday where Islamic militants had been barricaded for days, ending the kingdom’s largest gunbattle yet and killing 14 armed extremists, including top leaders in the Saudi branch of al Qaeda.
At least six others were captured during three days of heavy firefights in the desert town of Rass, state-run television said, reporting the death toll and citing security officials after the battle was over. Fourteen members of the security forces were wounded.
“There was no chance for anyone to escape. We got them all,” Interior Minister spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said.
The standoff ended when security forces stormed the partially built walled villa compound Tuesday night, but he would not confirm the number of people killed and captured.
The size and ferocity of the battle in Rass, 220 miles northwest of Riyadh, suggested the security forces had uncovered a major cell of the al Qaeda-linked militant networks that the kingdom has battled in a crackdown launched in 2003 following a string of deadly suicide bombings.
For nearly 48 hours, up to 10 gunmen who survived initial fighting Sunday were holed up in the villa compound with a large arsenal of weapons. Surrounded by hundreds of Saudi special forces, they fired heavy volleys of automatic weapons fire and grenades.
Residents said they heard a furious 30-minute long exchange of gunfire as troops stormed the villa and police cars streamed into the area.
“We could hear all the action, but we couldn’t see anything. It sounded like fireworks at a wedding,” said Mahboob Alam, 21.
After the fighting was over, security forces closed off parts of Rass, a conservative town in a region of the kingdom known for its hardcore fundamentalists.
It was the longest single gunbattle against the largest band of militants that Saudi forces have faced in the two-year crackdown – and the highest number of militant casualties in a single fight.
The dead from the Rass fighting included Nos. 4 and 7 on Saudi Arabia’s list of 26 most-wanted terrorists – Moroccan Kareem Altohami al-Mojati and Saudi Saud Homood Obaid al-Otaibi, a leading figure in al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region – a senior military official in Rass said on condition of anonymity.