RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Six foreign pilgrims were hurt on Friday in Saudi Arabia when a suicide bomber targeting Islam’s holiest site of Mecca blew himself up, the Interior Ministry said.
The incident happened around the Grand Mosque, where hundreds of thousands of worshipers gathered for early afternoon prayers on the last Friday of this year’s Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.
Ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki told Saudi television that police “foiled the terrorist plan that targeted the security of the Grand Mosque, pilgrims and worshipers.”
In dawn raids on Mecca and the Red Sea city of Jeddah officers arrested five suspects, including a woman, before surrounding the bomber’s location around the Grand Mosque.
Police said they engaged in a shootout at a three-story house in Mecca with the suicide bomber, who blew himself up and caused the building to collapse. He was killed, while the blast wounded six foreigners and five members of security forces, according to the Interior Ministry’s statement.
“Unfortunately he started shooting towards security personnel once he noticed their presence in the area, which led to an exchange of fire before he blew himself up,” Turki said.
Saudi state television aired footage after the raid near the Grand Mosque, showing police and rescue personnel running through the neighborhood’s narrow streets. The blast demolished the building, its walls crushing a parked car. Nearby structures appeared to be peppered with shrapnel and bullet holes.
The Interior Ministry said the thwarted “terrorist plan” would have violated “all sanctities by targeting the security of the Grand Mosque, the holiest place on Earth.”
“They obeyed their evil and corrupt self-serving schemes managed from abroad whose aim is to destabilize the security and stability of this blessed country,” it said.
The ministry did not name the group involved in the attack. The ultraconservative Sunni kingdom battled an al-Qaida insurgency for years and more recently has faced attacks from a local branch of the Islamic State group. Neither group immediately claimed involvement, though IS sympathizers online have urged more attacks as an offensive in Iraq slowly squeezes the extremists out of Mosul and their de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria comes under daily bombing from a US-led coalition.
The disrupted attack comes at a sensitive time in Saudi Arabia. King Salman earlier this week short-circuited the kingdom’s succession by making his son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to the throne.
The newly appointed 31-year-old crown prince is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s stalemated war in Yemen against Shiite rebels. He has also offered aggressive comments about the kingdom confronting Shiite power Iran.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday condemned the Mecca plot and said it remains willing to work with other countries in confronting terrorism.
Since late 2014 Saudi Arabia has faced periodic bombings and shootings claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Purported images from the scene that circulated on social media showed an alley filled with bricks and other debris apparently from a blast.
Video showed what appeared to be a bearded man’s head lying among rubble from a collapsed structure.
Near the end of Ramadan last year in the Saudi city of Medina four security officers died in an explosion close to Islam’s second holiest site, the Prophet’s Mosque.
It was one of three suicide blasts around the kingdom on the same day, in which a total of seven people were believed killed. The others occurred in Jeddah and in the Gulf city of Qatif.
The US Central Intelligence Agency said those attacks bore the hallmarks of IS.
Most of the targets in Saudi Arabia have been the Shiite minority and security forces, killing dozens of people.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called for attacks against the kingdom, a member of the US-led coalition battling the group in Syria and Iraq.
Since July last year police have arrested around 40 people, including Saudis and Pakistanis, for alleged extremist links.
Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism capabilities — which for years were led by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef — are well-regarded internationally.
On Wednesday Prince Mohammed was ousted from his posts of crown prince and interior minister, replaced as heir to the throne by King Salman’s son Mohammed bin Salman.
Friday’s counter-terrorist operation was the first to take place under the new interior minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, who is in his early 30s.
Prince Abdulaziz is the nephew of the deposed minister.