RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Saudi security agents searched homes in the capital and surrounding deserts Saturday for the body of slain American hostage Paul M. Johnson Jr., while Saudi officials hailed as a victory their slaying of his executioner, the top al-Qaida figure in the kingdom.
But the U.S. ambassador said he doubted the death of Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, who officials said was gunned down in a firefight the night before, would stop the violence against Westerners in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials had reported that Johnson's body was found Friday dumped on the northern outskirts of the capital, hours after his captors killed and decapitated him and posted Web photos of his severed head.
But officials backtracked Saturday. "We haven't found the body yet," said Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah in Washington. "We think we know the area where it is."
Saudi security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they have been searching in desert areas around Riyadh. They said they were also searching houses and apartments that they suspect were used by militants.
Al-Moqrin, who was the most wanted man in Saudi Arabia and was believed to have been behind the kidnapping, was killed along with three other militants in a gunbattle hours after Johnson's death was reported.
The other slain militants included his suspected deputy, Faisal al-Dukheil, "who is believed to be the number-two al-Qaida person in Saudi Arabia," al-Jubeir said.
Al-Moqrin is believed to have had a leading role in the stepped-up campaign of militant violence in the kingdom, which in recent months has seen bombings and gun attacks on foreigners.
"This was a major blow to al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia," al-Jubeir said. But he acknowledged that there are likely other al-Qaida cells in the kingdom seeking to topple the royal family for its close ties to the United States.
U.S. Ambassador James C. Oberwetter praised Saudi security forces for their work, including the killing of al-Moqrin. But he said the situation in the kingdom remained dangerous for Westerners.
"It will be some time before we achieve a comfort level that the situation returns to normal," Oberwetter said at a press conference in Riyadh.
"A great deal was accomplished last evening but we also believe that much more remains to be done," he said.
"The Saudis are doing an excellent job working on their most wanted list and taking people of that list," he said. "But not everyone has been removed from the list. Maybe there are more."
Saudi TV broadcast pictures Saturday of four bloodied bodies it said were al-Moqrin and the three other slain militants, apparently to refute denials by Islamic militants that al-Moqrin was dead. A posting on an Islamist Web site Saturday said claims of al-Moqrin's death were "aimed at dissuading the holy warriors and crushing their spirits."
The four were killed in an hours-long gunbattle after Saudi security forces intercepted their car in Riyadh's al-Malaz neighborhood at one of the mobile, "surprise" roadblocks they have been setting up in the capital, al-Jubeir said.
"The terrorists tried to shoot their way out," he said.
One security officer was killed and two were wounded in the gunbattle, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
The Interior Ministry said 12 suspected militants were also arrested in a sweep of the capital during the night.
The Interior Ministry said authorities had confiscated three cars used by al-Moqrin's cell, including one believed to have been used in the June 6 killing of Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers.
Also confiscated were forged identity papers, $38,000 and a weapons cache, including three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and automatic rifles, the statement said.
The Saudi Press Agency identified the other killed militants as Turki bin Fuheid al-Muteiry and Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Dreiham.
Al-Dikheel may have appeared in video footage of Johnson's killing, the SPA report said.
Al-Muteiry was among the militants who was involved in the May 29 shooting and hostage-taking attack on the oil hub of Khobar that killed 22 people, it said. Al-Dreiham was linked to the Nov. 8, 2003, suicide bombing at Riyadh housing compounds that killed 17, the statement added.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, and other top officials have said the crackdown is the beginning of the end of terrorism in the kingdom that has killed scores of people and scared some foreigners away from the oil-rich nation.
"We have substantially weakened the organization. ... We will continue to pursue them with vigor until we eliminate them from our midst," al-Jubeir said.
Saudi analysts have estimated that there are some 2,000 militants in the kingdom who might have links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network or its sympathizers.
Dia'a Rashwan, a Cairo expert on Islamic militants, said the death of al-Moqrin will not end terrorism in Saudi Arabia, where he said conservative Islamic traditions makes it fertile ground for extremism.
"There are always new generations who can take over and continue their course," he said.
Al-Moqrin took over al-Qaida operations in the kingdom after his predecessor, Khaled Ali Haj, was killed by security agents earlier this year, but he had masterminded attacks before that. Haj succeeded Youssef al-Airi, who was killed in a clash with Saudi security forces in early 2003.
Rashwan said, however, that the replacement terrorists may lack the combat skills and expertise of their predecessors, who, like al-Moqrin, trained in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Al-Moqrin, known as a smart and brutal tactician, was the most-wanted militant in Saudi Arabia. His attacks in recent months have shown tactical flexibility - devastating car bombs as well as pinpointed strikes like the kidnapping of Johnson, a first in the kingdom.
Johnson, 49, was kidnapped last weekend by militants who threatened to kill him by Friday if the kingdom did not release its al-Qaida prisoners. The Saudi government rejected the demands.
Three photos of Johnson's body, the head severed, were posted on the Internet when the deadline ran out. A statement said "the infidel got his fair treatment. ...Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles."
It was issued in the name of the Fallujah Brigade of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Johnson had worked on Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin.