RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The Saudi royal family says Crown Prince Nayef has died in a hospital outside the kingdom. He was in his late 70s.
The statement from King Abdullah says the prince died Saturday and will be buried Sunday after prayers in Mecca, but it gave no more details.
Nayef was the hard-line interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia's fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaida's branch in the country and then rose to become next in line to the throne.
Nayef's death unexpectedly reopens the question of succession in this crucial U.S. ally and oil powerhouse for the second time in less than a year. The 88-year-old King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors, despite ailments of his own. Now a new crown prince must be chosen from among his brothers and half-brothers, all the sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdul-Aziz.
The figure believed most likely to be tapped as the new heir is Prince Salman, the current defense minister who previously served for decades in the powerful post of governor of Riyadh, the capital. But it could also be a member of the so-called "third generation," the grandchildren of the country's founding monarch.