- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Terrorists launched coordinated car bombings and battled security forces in the Saudi capital last night in attacks that killed eight persons and signaled that Islamists were keeping up their fight despite the kingdom’s crackdown on al Qaeda.

A car bomb detonated near the Interior Ministry in central Riyadh — killing a bystander, Saudi TV reported — followed by another explosion as suicide attackers tried to bomb a troop recruitment center.

The gunmen who set off the ministry blast by remote control then fled. They later became engaged in a gunbattle with police in northern Riyadh in a fight that killed seven terrorists and wounded an unknown number of police, a police official said.

The attacks came two weeks after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called on his followers to focus attacks on his homeland. Although damage to the Interior Ministry was minor, it was a bold assault on the government body at the center of Saudi Arabia’s war on al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdel Aziz, the deputy interior minister, told Saudi TV that the attackers were all Saudis — “terrorists [who] took a great risk, because they know that their end is imminent.”

The violence sparked a jump in oil prices in afternoon trading in New York, helping push the price of a barrel of light crude up nearly $2 to $43.64.

The first explosion went off about 8:30 p.m. in central Riyadh near the Interior Ministry, a massive modern high-rise located in a complex that includes a luxury hotel. Two terrorists detonated the car bomb by remote control in a traffic tunnel near the ministry, police said.

Shattered glass littered the ground near the ministry, and several damaged cars — including a blood-splattered taxi — sat outside. A limousine driver was killed, Saudi TV said.

A half-hour later, a second explosion shook the city. Two suicide bombers had tried to ram into a troop recruitment center about five miles away, but came under fire from police and set off their explosives prematurely. The two bombers were killed, but there were no other reports of casualties.

The two terrorists behind the ministry blast, apparently joined by accomplices, fought police in a northern district of the capital. The gunmen, armed with automatic weapons and grenades, fled into a building that police surrounded and were killed, police said.

An Interior Ministry official said several policemen were wounded. Abdel Rahman al Sewilem, head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, told Saudi TV that four to five persons were injured. He did not say whether they were police, attackers or bystanders.

The explosions took place at night, when few employees were at the ministry or the recruitment center. Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told Saudi television that the number of victims was not large, even though the explosions took place in heavily populated areas, but he gave no casualty numbers.

Past terrorist attacks — including some claimed by al Qaeda — appeared designed to maximize casualties, but drew heavy criticism when many of the dead were Arab and Muslim. A nighttime attack focused on targets associated with Saudi security forces could have been meant to underline militants’ opposition to the government while avoiding killing civilians.

On Dec. 6, terrorists said to belong to al Qaeda’s branch in the kingdom attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jidda, killing nine persons.

Ten days later, bin Laden issued an audiotape — his first message in years directed specifically at Saudis. He praised those who carried out the consulate raid and urged his followers to attack the kingdom’s oil installations to weaken both the West and the Saudi royal family.

Saudi forces have cracked down heavily on al Qaeda — killing and arresting a large number of its suspected top figures in the country — after the large attacks earlier in the year.

In May, gunmen attacked oil company compounds in Khobar, 250 miles northeast of Riyadh, and killed 22 persons, 19 of them foreigners. Earlier the same month, attackers stormed the offices of an American company in Yanbu, 220 miles north of Jidda, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All four attackers died in a shootout after a police chase in which they dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car.

On April 21, a suicide bomber hit a government building in Riyadh, killing five persons. In November 2003, a suicide bombing at a Riyadh housing compound killed 17 persons, most of them Muslims working in Saudi Arabia.

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