- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Militants lobbing explosives forced their way into the heavily guarded U.S. consulate in Jiddah on Monday before Saudi security forces stormed the compound and fought a gunbattle to end a four-hour standoff. Eight people, none American, were killed.

The bold assault, the worst in the kingdom since May, demonstrated that Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on al-Qaida is still far from successful in the native land of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Saudi officials blamed a “deviant” group - the government’s way of identifying al-Qaida extremists it holds responsible for a string of terror strikes over the past two years.

President Bush said the attack showed “terrorists are still on the move,” trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The attack came a week after the deputy leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, warned in a videotape that Washington must change its policies or face further attacks by the terror group.

Five consulate employees were killed, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Riyadh. Three of the five attackers also died in the shootout, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. One American was slightly injured.

Saudi security officials initially said four Saudi officers also died in the clash, but Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki later told The Associated Press no officers were killed. He said one was seriously injured.

The two other attackers were captured wounded, the Interior Ministry said.

The attack prompted the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to urge thousands of Americans in the country - many of whom already live under extraordinarily tight security - to “exercise utmost security precautions.”

Consulate employees rushed to a safe area inside the compound after the attack began, a State Department official said. There were conflicting reports about hostages, but the official said no Americans were held captive.

“We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn’t know what was going on,” said a consulate employee who rushed to the safe area and later spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity. “They were heavy at times and not so heavy at other times.”

The attacks, immediately praised on militant Islamic web sites, showed that extremists in Saudi Arabia are still capable of carrying out sophisticated strikes despite the government crackdown.

“This was a very hard target to attack, and they pulled it off,” said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on Muslim militants, predicting the attack would boost morale among extremists. “For the government, this was a security failure. For the militants, this was a military victory.”

The Saudi Cabinet quickly convened and issued a statement condemning the attack and reaffirming the government’s determination “to fight terrorism in all its aspects and to hunt down its perpetrators until they are rooted out and the society is cleaned of them.”

Monday’s assault began when the attackers sneaked on foot behind an embassy car that was entering the consulate through a gate, then lobbed hand grenades at guards to take control of the gate area, said al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

He said the attackers also used incendiary grenades designed to create fires and to send up heavy smoke. Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the air shortly after the attack.

After getting inside the compound’s outer security wall, the attackers held about 18 people hostage at gunpoint, said a senior Saudi official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those held at gunpoint were mostly either in the courtyard-like area to apply for visas, or were employees who worked in that area, the official said.

The attackers never made it inside the consulate’s buildings, al-Turki said.

The Saudi official in Washington said the attackers then called a local police station to report they had hostages and would begin killing them unless Saudi security forces backed away from the compound. As the call was ending, Saudi security forces stormed the area and fought a short gunbattle, the official said.

Al-Turki denied that anyone was held hostage, but said the attackers did hurt those they came across in the courtyard area.

In Riyadh, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said four of the five employees killed held administrative jobs and that one was a private contract guard on the consulate’s payroll. Four other embassy workers - all hired locally - were hospitalized, Kalin said.

Most were Sudanese and Indian, Saudi officials said.

Asked about the conflicting reports of the 18 hostages, Kalin said: “The investigation of the Saudi authorities is ongoing and the embassy has no comment on this report at this time.”

Kalin said it was unclear if any of the U.S. Marine guards inside the consulate were involved in the gunbattle.

The consulate - like all U.S. diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia - has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year’s series of bombings against targets housing foreigners. Guard posts are located on the corners of the compound and a road open to civilian traffic runs along part of the wall.

Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed al-Qaida, led by bin Laden, for all major militant attacks in the kingdom since May 2003.

The Saudi government has cracked down hard, arresting and killing many key militants, and quieting the attacks somewhat.

Last May, however, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours.

In June, militants in Riyadh, the capital, kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr., an engineer for a U.S. defense company.

About 9,000 Americans live in the Jiddah consular district, which encompasses western Saudi Arabia from Yemen to Jordan. The population of Jiddah is estimated at more than 2 million.

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