- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Suspected Islamic militants wearing military-style uniforms sprayed gunfire inside two office compounds in the heart of the Saudi oil region yesterday, killing at least 10 people — including an American — and then seizing dozens of hostages at a luxury resort.

After an overnight standoff in the city of Khobar, gunfire broke out again and commandos were seen leaping out of a helicopter onto a rooftop. However, it was not clear whether they were raiding the building or just taking up positions. Fox News reported late last night that seven American hostages were released.

Security officials said between 45 and 60 people were being held hostage on the sixth floor of a high-rise building in the city’s walled Oasis Residential Resorts complex.

Most of the captives were Westerners, including Americans. The Dutch Foreign Ministry said three Dutch hostages had been released.

The Arab News newspaper, quoting witnesses, said the attackers had dragged the body of an unidentified victim behind their car before being surrounded by police in the building.

In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry said there were no Italians among the hostages.

Statements posted on Islamic Web sites claimed the attack in the name of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigade. One statement was signed “al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.” It said the attacks targeted U.S. companies and that a number of “crusaders” had been killed.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, called the attack “a cowardly and despicable act of murder.”

“These terrorists have no respect for human life and no regard for the principles of Islam,” he said.

The attack was the second deadly assault this month against the Saudi oil industry and came amid oil prices driven to new highs, partly by fears that the Saudi kingdom — the world’s largest oil producer — is unable to protect itself from terrorists.

The last attack targeted the offices of Houston-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. in the western city of Yanbu on May 1, killing six Westerners and a Saudi.

Osama bin Laden, blamed for past terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, has vowed to destabilize the oil industry and undermine the kingdom for its close ties to the United States.

British and Philippine citizens reportedly also were among those killed in the shooting rampage, as well as Saudi guards and a 10-year-old Egyptian boy whose father works for an oil company. The kingdom’s Crown Prince Abdullah said about 10 Saudis and foreigners were killed.

The attack started yesterday morning in the city of Khobar, 250 miles northeast of Riyadh near the Persian Gulf coast, where the suspected militants stormed two oil industry compounds housing offices and employee apartments.

Guards at the compounds said four gunmen wearing military-style dress opened fire and engaged in a shootout with Saudi security forces before fleeing up the street to the Oasis, a vast complex containing apartments and hotels.

Journalists were turned away from the compounds and kept back from the Oasis, where hundreds of Saudi security forces were trying to capture or kill the militants. Saudi forces had fired shots inside the compound, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

According to Oasis residents and an employee, the militants asked questions when they arrived that indicated they were trying to separate Muslims from non-Muslims. Islamic militants have been criticized in the Arab world for previous attacks in which Saudis and other Arabs were killed.

Lebanon’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Chammat, said that five Lebanese hostages had been released.

One of the targeted oil-industry compounds contains offices and apartments for the Arab Petroleum Investment Corp., or Apicorp, and the other — the Petroleum Center building — houses offices of various international firms.

A civilian car had slammed into a sign outside the Apicorp compound, and there was a burned car at the entrance and glass shards on the ground. Witnesses earlier said at least 10 ambulances were outside the Oasis, and that hundreds of policemen had surrounded the complex with helicopters overhead.

In addition to Apicorp, oil-industry companies with offices in the compounds include a joint venture among Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Total SA and Saudi Aramco; Lukoil Holdings of Russia; and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec.

Employees from the other companies were safe, Shell spokesman Simon Buerk and a Saudi oil industry official, Yahya Shinawi, said.

Other companies believed to be in the compounds included Schlumberger and INOVx, both based in Houston, and Aveva, of Cambridge, England. There was no immediate word on their employees.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said an American man who worked for an oil company was confirmed dead, but did not identify him or his employer. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said two Americans were wounded.

Mr. Casey said the State Department has not upgraded its travel warning, but noted that it was already about as tough as it could get. It is still recommending that Americans defer all nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia and that those there consider leaving immediately.

A CIA spokesman said the agency could not confirm who staged the attack, but a Saudi official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the method of the attack was “definitely inspired by al Qaeda.”

The attack came as Saudi Arabia, the most powerful member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is urging the group to boost oil production to try to reduce the high cost of crude.

Saudi Arabia launched a high-profile crackdown on terrorists after attacks on Riyadh housing compounds in 2003, and claims to have foiled dozens of terror plots in the kingdom.

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