RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Seven terror suspects escaped from a prison in the Saudi capital, officials said Saturday — a rare jailbreak in the tightly-controlled kingdom and U.S. ally in the war on terror.
The Saudi Interior Ministry described the fugitives as religious extremists, and said they had been arrested in separate incidents over the past year.
"They are extremists, they believe in the takfiri thoughts," spokesman Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press on the telephone.
The radical takfiri ideology is followed by radical Sunni Muslims bent on killing anyone they consider an infidel, even fellow Muslims.
But he declined to confirm media reports that the fugitives were linked to the Al Qaeda terror network, saying only that they had been arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
One of the men had been detained for giving shelter to a wanted Moroccan militant who was later killed in a firefight with Saudi forces, a security official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Al-Turki said the men — six Saudis and a Yemeni — escaped "a few days ago."
The Interior Ministry urged the fugitives to turn themselves in to avoid a postponement of their trial, and to benefit from "the king's generosity," state-run Al-Ekhbariya television reported.
The television said the fugitives had been arrested for "security-related issues," a term used by Saudi authorities to describe terrorism charges.
The ministry and state television said the men escaped from Malaz, one of the main prisons in Riyadh, and warned the population against giving them shelter or assistance.
Al-Turki said the prison was located in a residential area.
In May, the pan-Arab television station Al-Arabiya aired a video of a man who identified himself as an Al Qaeda member and said he had escaped from a prison in the Saudi capital. Standing in front of a map of Saudi Arabia, the man described his escape, saying he was able to "take advantage of the situation" and slip out of an interrogation room when an argument erupted between investigators and prison guards.
But Saudi officials declined to comment on the May 15 tape, and no Al Qaeda detainees were reported missing from Saudi prisons at that time.