RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Police clashed with suspected Al Qaeda sympathizers in the streets of the sacred city of Mecca yesterday, killing two militants and uncovering a cache of weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles, grenades, and bomb-making materials.
The raid was the latest in a string of antimilitant sweeps across Saudi Arabia, where the legitimacy of the regime rests in part on safeguarding Mecca -- the site of Islam's holiest shrine, and where devout Muslims must make at least one pilgrimage. An attack in Mecca could be seen as a strike on the Saudi regime.
The kingdom launched its crackdown on suspected terrorists after the May 12 suicide attacks against Western residential compounds in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. About 600 people believed linked to Al Qaeda have been arrested in the sweep.
In yesterday's action, the weapons found and the method the militants used indicate they are sympathizers of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
"They have the same ideology as that of the other groups that have been arrested," the official said. "There isn't another terrorist network in the whole world that uses such methods."
The official said there was no indication the militants involved in yesterday's shootout had contact with those arrested in previous sweeps.
The confrontation began at 8 a.m., when security forces surrounded two militant hide-outs fortified by sandbags in Mecca's al-Share'a neighborhood. Police had been monitoring the locations for at least 24 hours, a security official in Mecca said.
"The terrorists began shooting heavily at security forces, using automatic rifles and hand grenades," the ministry official said.
While a security forces helicopter hovered, police fired back at the militants as they tried to flee in two cars, killing two militants, the security official in Mecca said. Weapons and bombs were found in the two cars.
A cache of weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles, grenades, and bomb-making materials, as well as passports, identity cards, and pamphlets were found in militants' hide-outs, the security official said. Some of the fliers bore pictures of Saudi-born bin Laden, Al Qaeda's chief.
As a result, the security official in Mecca said, Saudi police will increase security in Mecca, particularly during the last 10 days of the fasting month of Ramadan, which would fall in late November.
During Ramadan, some 2 million Muslims are expected to perform the "omra," or minor pilgrimage, to the city, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims.
"The fact that this came about during Ramadan and that the militants were planning to target Mecca is a strong indication of the dangerous beliefs those people carry and the extent to which they have been duped," said the ministry official.
A Western diplomat said the successful sweeps over the summer were partly due to information security officials have received from those who have been arrested in the past few months.
The government has been cracking down on Islamic militants since the May 12 suicide bombings that killed 26 people. Nine attackers also died. On June 14, a raid on a terror cell plotting attacks in Mecca killed five Al Qaeda militants and two security agents. Police also found six dozen bombs and other weapons in the militants' hide-out.
Saudis had reacted angrily to the threats against Mecca, and the Riyadh bombings also sparked unprecedented public discussion of the role of religion in Saudi society, with some arguing that the strict form of Islam preached in the kingdom fostered intolerance and extremism.