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Ex-bin Laden allies urge halt to terror

By Associated Press
Published June 15, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Six Saudi clerics who once espoused Islamic radicalism condemned a wave of attacks on Westerners, part of the kingdom's efforts to rally its people against al-Qaida's intensified campaign to oust the ruling family.

The U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia met Monday with relatives of two Americans who were the latest victims of militant attacks: Kenneth Scroggs, who was gunned down in his garage, and former Central Floridian Paul M. Johnson, who was kidnapped, reportedly after being drugged.

Ambassador James C. Oberwetter said he expressed his condolences to Scroggs' widow and gave Johnson's wife "my hopes for his safe return."

Oberwetter said he told the relatives that Saudi authorities have assured him they are "doing everything possible to resolve this kidnapping case."

A group identifying itself as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the slaying and the kidnapping, as well as other attacks in recent weeks.

U.S. and Saudi officials say the attacks aim to drive off foreign workers on whom Saudi Arabia relies in its crucial oil and technology sectors.

Western diplomats said Monday that Americans and others were leaving in response to the violence, but not in large numbers. The diplomats said some were leaving on long holidays, and others for good.

A Riyadh travel agent said flights were being booked at the elevated levels typical in summer, though it was a little early for vacation travel.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Americans in the kingdom were advised "to practice good personal and security procedures" and report anything suspicious to Saudi police.

The U.S. Embassy has advised Americans to leave Saudi Arabia, and Britain has authorized the voluntary departure of nonessential embassy staff and their families.

As part of its campaign to try to discredit Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, the Saudi government allowed the six clerics - all of whom have past links to militants and have served prison time - to issue on the state news agency their statement condemning the attacks.

At least two of the six clerics who signed the condemnation, Safar bin Abdul Rahman al-Hawali and Salman al-Awdah, were once close to bin Laden. Bin Laden praised them in videotapes a few years ago, thanking them for their support and for "enlightening" Muslim youth.

In their statement, the clerics called the attacks "a heinous crime" and even adopted the monarchy's description of attackers as "deviants."

"We condemn the criminal acts committed by the deviant group in a number of Saudi areas in which many innocent people were killed," they said in the statement, issued Sunday.

"The nation's theologians are in consensus that it is a sin to kill a life without a right, be it Muslim or non-Muslim," it said, adding that such acts would divide Muslims "at a time ... when other nations are uniting against them."

They also warned against calling other Muslims "infidels." Al-Qaida often accuses the Saudi government of being un-Islamic and allying itself with "infidels," a reference to the United States and other Western countries.

The clerics were unavailable for comment Monday.

Scroggs worked for Advanced Electronics Co., a Saudi firm that has U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin among its customers. Johnson, 49, of Stafford Township, N.J., is employed by Lockheed Martin. He works on the radar systems of Apache helicopters.

The Saudi newspaper Okaz, known for its close ties to the Interior Ministry, reported that Johnson was drugged before his abduction Saturday.

Okaz quoted unidentified sources as saying a syringe containing traces of an unspecified fluid was found next to Johnson's car.

In its statement, al-Qaida threatened to subject Johnson to the same degrading punishment that U.S. soldiers used on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Scroggs was the third Westerner killed in a week. On June 8, American Robert Jacobs also was killed in his parking garage, and an Irish TV cameraman was killed two days earlier.

In its statement about Johnson's abduction, al-Qaida said it would release a videotape with his confession and its demands. No such tape surfaced by Monday.

The statement claiming Saturday's shooting and kidnapping was signed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the same group that claimed responsibility for the May 29-30 shooting rampage and hostage-taking in the eastern Saudi oil hub of Khobar that killed 22 people, mostly foreigners.

[Last modified June 15, 2004, 01:00:24]

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