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Saudis Battle Militants in Streets of Mecca

Police battled militants in the streets of the holy city of Mecca on Monday, killing two of the suspects and uncovering a large cache of weapons, the state news agency reported.

The raid on two buildings in Mecca's al-Share'a neighborhood foiled a terrorist operation "that did not respect the sanctity of holy places and the month of Ramadan (search)" — the holy month of fasting that began days ago, an Interior Minister was quoted as saying by the Saudi Press Agency.

It was the second time this year that Saudi authorities have broken up suspected militant rings in Mecca (search) — a city at the symbolic heart of the Saudi royal family's rule — amid a wide crackdown on Islamic extremists.

When police surrounded the buildings at 8 a.m., the suspects opened fire with automatic rifles and grenades, the official said.

Police fired back as the militants fled in two cars, hitting one of the vehicles and killing two of its occupants.

A cache of weapons and bombs were found inside the car, the official said.

Security also seized fire arms including Kalashnikov rifles, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and material to make explosives in the raided premise. Passports, identification cards, and flyers were also found.

Police are searching for the militants who escaped, the official said. It was not clear how many were at large, and the ministry official did not give details on the alleged terrorist plot.

The government has been cracking down on Islamic militants since May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh killed 26 people and nine attackers.

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, the birthplace of Islam's seventh-century prophet and the heart of the annual pilgrimage every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform at least once.

The legitimacy of Saudi rulers rests partly on their custodianship of the holy city, which is off-limits to non-Muslims. A strike on Mecca could be seen as a strike on the regime.

More than 200 suspects have been arrested and more than a dozen killed in a series of high-profile police raids since the Riyadh attacks.

The Riyadh bombings (search) also sparked unprecedented public discussion of the role of religion in Saudi society, with some daring to argue that the strict form of Islam preached in the kingdom fostered intolerance and extremism.

Saudi Arabia has been under pressure to crush networks that include Al Qaeda, the terror group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis.