- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

From combined dispatches

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Saudi authorities hunted yesterday for three purported al Qaeda militants who used hostages as human shields to escape after a weekend assault on a residential complex that killed 22 persons, mostly foreign oil-industry workers.

The attackers fled Khobar to nearby Dammam, where they abandoned their truck for a car commandeered at gunpoint from an unidentified driver and drove off with police in pursuit, a police official said yesterday.

A fourth militant, described as the ringleader, was captured Sunday after helicopter-borne Saudi commandos raided the upscale Oasis compound, where the gunmen had taken dozens of foreigners hostage in a hotel a day earlier.

Analysts said the attack at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing region had exposed glaring security gaps and raised fears of a mass exodus of Westerners from the kingdom.

“This is not somebody planting a bomb and running off. This is large numbers of armed men running amok in a very large city, which is unprecedented,” said Tom Ripley, research associate at the British-based Center of Defense and International Strategic Studies.

“The credibility of the Saudi statements about having the situation under control are looking very, very weak at the moment. The whole confidence in their security apparatus is getting lower and lower,” he said.

Major Western oil companies said they were unlikely to pull out of Saudi Arabia but would consider repatriating families.

“Each terrorist attack here has caused some Westerners to say, ‘Well, this is the time to leave,’ but I do not foresee a stampede for the exit,” one diplomat said.

But some analysts said another major attack on a foreign target could prompt an exodus of Westerners.

Yesterday, bloodstains, glass shards, bullet holes and evidence of grenade blasts scarred the sealed-off Oasis resort complex, an employee said. Broken windows were visible in the upper floors of the hotel.

The official death toll from the 25-hour siege was eight Indians, three Filipinos, three Saudis, two Sri Lankans, an American, a Briton, an Italian, a Swede, a South African and a 10-year-old Egyptian. Twenty-five persons of various nationalities were injured, and security forces evacuated 242 persons from the Oasis, including residents not held hostage but trapped inside.

An Oasis employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, relayed an account from a freed hostage who heard a gunman say, “Let us go, and we’ll let the hostages go.” Security forces first refused, but agreed after the militants began killing hostages, the former hostage said.

A statement Sunday attributed to al Qaeda’s chief in the Saudi region, Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, said the violence aimed to punish the kingdom for its oil dealings with the United States and to drive “crusaders” from “the land of Islam.”

Saudi Arabia relies on 6 million foreign workers to run its oil industry and related sectors.

The attack was expected to have some effect on world oil markets, where prices have been at new highs, but analysts have said that jitters shouldn’t be too strong because no hard oil facilities were targeted.

Most oil markets were closed yesterday, but one open in Tokyo indicated traders were concerned, with crude oil futures up, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

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