- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Helicopter-borne Saudi commandos drove al Qaeda militants from a housing complex for expatriates in the kingdom’s oil hub yesterday, ending a shooting and hostage-taking spree that left 22 dead — most of them foreigners.

At least one American was killed in the attack, the worst terror strike on Saudi soil in a year and the second this month to target the kingdom’s oil industry. An audio statement yesterday attributed to al Qaeda’s chief in the Saudi region 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.”

The 25-hour rampage started Saturday morning when militants dressed in military-style uniforms opened fire inside two oil industry office compounds in the Persian Gulf city of Khobar and engaged in a shootout with Saudi guards. They then moved up the street to the Oasis, an upscale resort and residence with apartments, villas and hotels, where they took 45 to 60 people hostage.

Saudi security stormed the building yesterday morning after they found out that the hostages were being harmed, said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi Embassy in London.

“Intervention then became necessary,” he said.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the bodies of nine hostages were found on the premises when forces went in.

One of the four attackers was captured and the others escaped, but the Interior Ministry said the arrested militant, who was wounded, was the ringleader of the assault and “an important target.” One of the fugitives also was wounded.

In Washington, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, Nail al-Jubeir, told CNN that one militant also was killed in the standoff.

“The intent [of the attack] was to cripple the world economy by sending the message that foreigners are not safe inside Saudi Arabia,” Mr. al-Jubeir said. But he dismissed any notion that the kingdom cannot protect its people.

“It does not take much to come into a building with a rifle and shoot innocent people,” he said, comparing the attack to a drive-by shooting. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to guard against.”

The attack marks a fresh challenge to efforts by the kingdom to crack down on Islamist militants. There also were concerns that the attack could drive up oil prices, already at new highs in part because of fears that the world’s largest oil producer is unable to protect itself from terrorism.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia reiterated a call to its citizens to leave the kingdom. Britain’s Foreign Office said on its Web site that it fears that further attacks “may be in the final stages of preparation” in Saudi Arabia and warned against all but essential travel.

Most of the dead were among the 6 million expatriate workers on whom the kingdom relies to run its oil industry and other sectors. 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 boy were killed, according to the Interior Ministry statement read on Saudi television.

It said 25 foreigners were injured and that security forces had evacuated 242 persons from the Oasis, including residents not held hostage but trapped inside.

It was not clear how many people were killed in the initial shooting rampage or during the hostage standoff. On Saturday night, while the hostages were being held, Crown Prince Abdullah said about 10 Saudis and foreigners had been killed at the oil company offices.

The Interior Ministry said the militants tried to enter the Oasis complex with a vehicle rigged with explosives, but had to scale the wall instead.

Once inside, they gathered hostages on the sixth floor of a high-rise building after ensuring that they were non-Muslims, residents said.

Abdul Salam al-Hakawati, a 38-year-old Lebanese corporate financial officer, said gunmen rummaging around his family residence declared, “This is a Muslim house” — apparently seeing framed Koranic verses on the walls.

He said a man in his early 20s, carrying a machine gun and wearing an ammunition belt, told him: “We only want to hurt Westerners and Americans. Can you tell us where we can find them here?”

Late Saturday, Saudi security forces stormed the walled complex and surrounded the attackers. The forces tried to reach the hostages during the night, they said, but found booby traps.

Just after sunrise, three helicopters dropped Saudi commandos into the compound. Gunfire, heard sporadically overnight, rang out again. Within a few hours, the standoff was over.

In the audio statement posted yesterday on Islamic Web sites, the speaker identified as Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin — thought to be al Qaeda’s chief in the Saudi region — took responsibility for the attack.

The speaker railed against the Saudi government, accusing it of opening the kingdom to Americans and providing “America with oil at the cheapest prices according to their masters’ wish, so that their economy does not collapse.”

The speaker also said that the struggle with America would be pursued “in the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, in Iraq” and that the battle with the Saudi government will continue until the “crusaders are expelled from the land of Islam.”

It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the recording, which was accompanied by a written statement characterized by contempt for non-Muslims and signed “al Qaeda’s cell in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, blamed for terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, has vowed to destabilize the kingdom for its close ties to the United States.

Al Qaeda is suspected of having carried out attacks May 12, 2003, on three Riyadh compounds housing foreigners. The attacks killed 26 persons. Nine suicide bombers also died. The strikes were followed by a high-profile crackdown on terrorists that continues.

Several Saudi newspapers reported yesterday that the attackers threw at least one body from the Oasis building where they were holed up and mutilated some of the bodies.

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 international firms.

The most recent terror attack in Saudi Arabia 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. Many expatriates left the kingdom after that attack.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide