Scores of Al Qaida among 140 who died in Saudi prison fire

Friday, September 19, 2003

LONDON Scores of Al Qaida detainees were believed to have been killed in a fire that spread through a Saudi maximum-security prison outside Riyad.

Saudi opposition sources said more than 140 people were killed in the fire in Al Hayer prison on Monday south of the Saudi capital. The sources said the fire was believed set by a group that protested conditions in the modern facility, monitored by electronic sensors and cameras.

Saudi opposition sources, who first reported the blaze, said Al Hayer contained many of the nearly 300 Al Qaida suspects arrested by Saudi authorities during the crackdown that followed the May 12 suicide attacks in Riyad. They said the prison wing contained 200 inmates, many of them Saudi dissidents and suspected insurgents, Middle East Newsline reported.

Riyad has not identified the casualties. The official Saudi Press Agency reported that 67 inmates were killed and another 20 were wounded in the blaze, which began at about noon. The wing of the prison was said to have contained 120 inmates and the fire lasted into late Monday. Saudi authorities attributed the fire to a short circuit.

"It is too early to tell whether the fire is an act of sabotage, but an investigation is going on," a Saudi security source was quoted as saying.

The inmates at Al Hayer included such leading Al Qaida-related dissidents as Sheik Salman Al Awdeh, Sheik Said Al Zair, Mohammed Al Masari and Hani Al Sayigh. In 1998, Al Sayigh was extradited by the United States in connection with the 1996 truck bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar in which 19 Americans were killed.

"Many of the inmates were combatants who were arrested upon their return from Afghanistan in 2001 or after the Riyad suicide attacks," a Saudi opposition source said.

The London-based Saudi opposition group, the Movement for Islamic Reform, said 144 inmates and 40 security men died in the blaze. The group said nobody in the prison wing escaped.

Saudi opposition sources said that for weeks Al Hayer had been simmering with unrest. Last month, four inmates died after they set their cell on fire. The sources said several inmates also died during torture sessions in the prison.

The prison, built by a Canadian company in the early 1990s, also had held seven British and Canadian nationals imprisoned for more than two years on charges of being responsible for a bombing campaign in Riyad. The Britons were released in August.

In another development, Saudi Arabia has agreed to a U.S. request to close down an Islamic fund to build mosques. Saudi sources said the fund was said to have been taken over by Al Qaida, which used official money to buy weapons and explosives for attacks inside the kingdom.

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