RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef has acknowledged for the first time that Saudi militants may have gone to neighboring Iraq to fight against the U.S.-led occupation force.
Previously, Saudi officials have vehemently denied fighters were leaving the oil-rich desert kingdom and close U.S. ally to fight in Iraq.
"Surely, there are Saudis [in Iraq]," the prince told reporters late Monday. "But the number, and how [they got in to Iraq] is not available to us now."
Hundreds of such militants, the minister said, are detained in Saudi custody and some have been tried and convicted. He did not say how many were arrested or provide a number for those convicted, but Prince Nayef (search) said more trials would be held.
Iraqi officials have repeatedly said Saudis were involved in the fighting in Iraq. On Monday, Iraq's Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin (search) said the government had 99 foreign fighters in detention, including 14 Saudis.
Prince Nayef said the Saudi government has not been officially notified of the detention of any Saudis in Iraq.
Saudi newspapers have published obituaries and news of funerals held by Saudi families for at least four Saudis said to have died fighting the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.
Iraq was expected to raise the subject of infiltration at a gathering of foreign ministers of countries neighboring Iraq that will be held July 21 in Cairo, Egypt. Besides the Saudis, Iraq has said it has in custody 26 Syrians, 14 Iranians, 12 Egyptians, nine Sudanese, five Palestinians, five Yemenis, five Jordanians, five Tunisians, a Lebanese, a Moroccan, a Turk and an Afghan.
Prince Nayef also said Saudi followers of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network are "being dealt with." He warned there would be no extension to the one-month limited amnesty announced June 23 that would spare the lives of militants who surrender to authorities.
Thus far, two militants have surrendered, including Othman Hadi Al Maqboul al-Amri, No. 21 on the government's most wanted list.
The minister said the fight against terror in Saudi Arabia is not over and that security forces were prepared for any new attacks.
"There are still things we have to deal with, and we should not be surprised if anything happens," he said. "We are totally prepared to face any emergency."
A series of suicide bombings, gunbattles and kidnappings since May 2003 have targeted foreign workers in the kingdom. The attacks have been blamed on Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.