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Saudi Farm Raid Sets Off Hostage Standoff

September 23, 2003

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Saudi security forces raided a farm Tuesday, setting off a running battle with gunmen who fled into a hospital and took foreigners hostage, security officials and an Arab television station said. The government said the gunmen were militants planning a terror attack.

One security official and three militants were killed in the gunbattle, a government statement said.

Security officials said the standoff at the hospital building in Jizan, 600 miles south of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, continued at mid-afternoon. An Arab television station said the hostages were foreign doctors and nurses.

The raid came amid a crackdown on Islamic militants launched after May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 26 people, as well as the nine attackers. More than 200 suspects have been arrested and more than a dozen killed in a series of high-profile police raids since then.

The battle began when security forces raided a farm near Jizan, looking for suspects, the security officials said.

Some of the suspects escaped and took refuge in the hospital building, taking a number of hostages, they said.

The government statement, aired on Saudi state television, said the initial raid aimed to capture militants planning a terror attack and that an ensuing gunbattle killed one security officer and three militants.

But it said the raid targeted an apartment, not a farm, near Jizan and said nothing of the hospital standoff. It said the suspects were armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades.

It was not immediately clear why the official statement did not mention the hospital standoff. The Saudi government is traditionally slow to report details of any security matter.

A correspondent for the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya station who was in southern Saudi Arabia reported that the suspects were holding a number of foreign doctors and nurses hostage on the roof of the hospital. Negotiations with the hostage-takers are under way, Omar al-Zubaidi, the correspondent said. None of the hostages was injured.

Westerners and others often staff hospitals in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom also relies on foreign workers in its oil, banking, telecommunications and other industries and to train its security forces. It is home to 6 million expatriate workers, including about 35,000 Americans and 30,000 Britons.

The May 12 suicide bombings targeted three Riyadh residential compounds inhabited for the most part by foreigners. The May 12 victims included nine Americans and Saudis, Filipinos, Jordanians and Britons.

Saudi officials have repeatedly and publicly denounced terrorism and Islamic extremism in the wake of the May 12 attacks.

The kingdom has ``confronted terrorists, encircled them, disbanded their bases and is still pursuing their criminal remnants and will be victorious, God willing,″ King Fahd said Tuesday in a speech read on his behalf by Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Sheik at a conference in Kazakhstan on dialogue among civilizations, according to the official Saudi press agency.

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