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Saudis Blame al-Qaida for Deadly Attack

November 9, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Saudi officials pointed to al-Qaida terrorists Sunday as responsible for a suicide car bombing that devastated a Riyadh housing complex, killing at least nine bystanders and wounding more than 80.

Rubble, broken glass, splintered furniture and charred, twisted hunks of metal covered the scene of Saturday’s attack, in which militants _ possibly disguised as police _ shot their way into the compound in the upscale neighborhood before detonating at least one bomb. The attack was similar in style to a deadly suicide bombing of another Riyadh housing complex in May, also blamed on al-Qaida.

Two security guards, from India and Sudan, were killed, an Interior Ministry official said. Also killed were three Lebanese _ a woman, a 6-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl _ and four Egyptians _ a couple and their two sons _ according to their countries’ embassies in Riyadh.

The casualty toll, however, may not be final, and U.S. and other embassies were trying to account for their nationals. The State Department said one American citizen was wounded and another missing.

The Interior Ministry said 86 people were wounded, mostly women and children. Most of the residents of the 200-house compound were Lebanese, though some Saudis live there as well as a few families from Germany, France and Italy.

A Lebanese man who was slightly injured, Gaby Kallas, 44, told AP he heard gunfire and three explosions. The ceiling of the compound cafeteria where he and his friends were at the time collapsed and windows shattered, he said.

``A few minutes later I rushed home about two blocks away and found my family OK,″ Kallas said.

The streets were crowded at the time of the bombing because of the holy month of Ramadan, now in its third week, when Muslims fast during the day and have dinners and parties late into the night.

Early Sunday, Al-Arabiya TV, quoting unnamed Saudi sources, reported the discovery of an unspecified number of bodies belonging to attackers involved in the blast. The Interior Ministry official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said he did not know how many attackers were involved.

Saudi officials toured the site Sunday and then sealed it off. Witnesses described four residential buildings destroyed, surrounding buildings heavily damaged, and at least six burned vehicles. Some said Saturday’s bombers used what appeared to be a police car.

Footage aired by state-run Saudi TV showed a large crater, apparently gouged out by an explosion.

In comments published Sunday on the Web site of Saudi daily Okaz newspaper, Interior Minister Prince Nayef said they could not rule out a connection to suspected al-Qaida terrorist cells targeted in recent sweeps, as a number of suspects from those cells were still at large.

Adding to the al-Qaida connection was the similiarity between Saturday’s bombing and other attacks blamed on the terror network _ particularly the May 12 suicide car bombings of other Riyadh compounds housing foreigners, which killed 26 bystanders. Nine attackers also died.

Led by Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida has long opposed the Saudi royal family, accusing it of being insufficiently Islamic and too close to the West, particularly the United States.

On Sunday in London, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, condemned Saturday’s attack as the work of an ``evil cult″ whose ``sole aim is the destruction of the kingdom.″

By targeting foreigners’ housing compounds, the attackers target the backbone of the Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia is home to 6 million expatriate workers, including about 35,000 Americans and 30,000 Britons. The kingdom relies on foreigners in its oil industry, security forces and health sector.

``This evil must be stopped,″ Prince Turki said, without naming al-Qaida. ``We call on all the people of the world to work with us in fighting this evil and ridding the international community of this plague.″

Saudi authorities, under U.S. pressure to act against terrorism and extremism, have been cracking down on homegrown militants since the May 12 Riyadh attacks. Also, 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were Saudis.

In the past week, police clashed with suspected al-Qaida sympathizers in the streets of the sacred city of Mecca on Monday, killing two militants and uncovering a large cache of weapons. Three days later, two suspected militants blew themselves up in Mecca to avoid arrest and a third suspect was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh.

Saturday’s attack occurred a day after the U.S. Embassy issued a warning that terror attacks could be imminent in the tense Gulf kingdom.

America’s three diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia were closed indefinitely starting Saturday as a result of the terror threat. A message on the Embassy web site Sunday cited Saturday’s attack and said embassy staff and their dependents were limiting their movements to their own residential compound ``pending further assessment of the security situation.″

The Saudi official said the attackers exchanged fire with guards and there were apparently three explosions. Diplomats reported one big blast about midnight, followed by two smaller ones 15 seconds apart. It was unclear if three bombs had detonated or whether one set off multiple explosions.

Police said the explosions were three miles from an entrance to the Saudi capital’s diplomatic quarter, close to the Saudi royal family’s main palaces.

Almost all the foreign embassies in Riyadh _ including the U.S. Embassy _ and most diplomats’ homes are inside the diplomatic quarter, a guarded, isolated neighborhood. Several residential compounds housing Western business people are close to the diplomatic quarter.

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