Saudi authorities find head of slain hostage

Militants decapitated U.S. contractor in June

search renewed for body

July 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Saudi police made the grisly discovery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of the frozen head of Paul M. Johnson Jr., the American hostage decapitated by his captors last month, the Interior Ministry announced yesterday.

The head was found during a raid on the suspected hideout of Saleh al-Awfi, the reputed leader of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, the main franchise in the kingdom of Osama bin Laden's group. The raid led to a gun battle with militants inside the house in which two men were killed, including the editor of the group's Web magazine, Sawt al-Jihad, or Voice of the Holy War, who was on the list of the kingdom's 26 most wanted militants, security officials said.

Al-Awfi was believed wounded in the raid and fled to a mountainous area outside Riyadh that security forces had surrounded, officials said.

The Interior Ministry statement noted that al-Awfi's wife and three children were in the sprawling villa at the time of the raid. They were detained, and a huge weapons cache was seized, including a surface-to-air missile, a variety of bombs, 22 machine guns, 11 pistols and more than 30,000 bullets.

When the police initiated the raid, on a villa in a well-off Riyadh neighborhood, they were met with a shower of both hand grenades and the rocket-propelled variety, said the statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. During the ensuing battle, other members of the "deviant group" arrived, the statement said, and tried to attack the security forces and rescue their colleagues but were driven off.

The statement made no mention of the names of the others, but officials said al-Awfi was among them. Al-Awfi, a former prison guard who reportedly met bin Laden and fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq, was believed to have been named the leader of the Qaida offshoot in June after the previous leader, Abdelaziz al-Moqrin, was gunned down in Riyadh.

Al-Moqrin, who had assumed the leadership in March after his predecessor was killed, planned and carried out a series of bloody raids against foreigners in the kingdom, culminating in Johnson's kidnapping on June 12. The group demanded the release of Qaida prisoners in exchange for the life of Johnson, a 49-year-old Apache helicopter engineer who had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade.

On June 18, the same night the group posted bloody pictures of Johnson's beheading on the Internet, al-Moqrin and several top aides were gunned down in Riyadh.

Last week, the U.S. Embassy called off the search for Johnson's body, an effort that had included a special team of American dogs able to detect corpses. The macabre discovery of the head, which was found in a freezer in the house, would prompt a renewed effort to find the rest of Johnson's corpse, officials said.

The two men killed in the raid were Issa bin Saad al-Oshan, editor of Sawt al-Jihad, and Mujab Abu Ras al-Dosari, who was also on the kingdom's most wanted list, the ministry statement said. That brings the number of men still on the list to 11. Three other militants were hurt and at least two others were arrested; three security officers were also wounded, the Interior Ministry statement said.

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