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Explosions Rock Western Enclaves in Saudi 0aCapital
By Neil MacFarquhar with Douglas 0aJehl
The New York Times
Monday 12 May 2003
KUWAIT Four separate overnight attacks involving explosions and 0asmall-arms fire struck Western targets including residential compounds in 0aRiyadh, the Saudi capital, causing an undetermined number of casualties, Saudi 0aofficials and diplomats said today.
Initial news reports put the number of injured from the 0aexplosions, believed to have been caused by car bombs, as high as 50, but 0aembassy officials were unable to confirm that number.
"We can confirm that there are casualties, but we can't confirm 0athe numbers or the extent," said John Burgess, the counselor for public affairs 0aat the American Embassy in Riyadh.
Three blasts came almost simultaneously just before midnight 0alocal time, and a fourth followed shortly afterward, Saudi officials said.
There were no official reports of deaths from the attacks. But 0anews reports from Saudi Arabia, citing hospital officials and residents of the 0acompounds, said dozens of people had been wounded and some appeared to have been 0akilled. The residents include American, British, Italian and other Western 0acitizens, as well as Saudis and citizens of other Middle Eastern countries.
The attacks were carried out just hours before Secretary of State 0aColin L. Powell was due to arrive in the Saudi capital as part of a diplomatic 0aswing through the Middle East. American officials said tonight that they 0aexpected Mr. Powell to travel to the kingdom as planned.
The Saudi ruling family has warned repeatedly that the failure to 0apromote peace in the region would inflame extremist sentiment and that the 0aoccupation of Iraq would only serve to fuel such attacks.
The attackers struck just days after the State Department issued 0aan extraordinarily specific warning on May 1 that terrorists "may be in the 0afinal phases of planning attacks" on American targets in Saudi Arabia.
"We didn't have anything particular in mind, except there were 0aclearly plans for something to happen or that someone was planning to do 0asomething," said Mr. Burgess. "There was no specificity in the warnings that the 0aU.S. got about attacks in Saudi Arabia."
The attacks on Monday followed a botched attempt by the Saudi 0asecurity services to seize a cell the Interior Ministry accused of being linked 0ato the Al Qaeda network. A senior Saudi official said that 19 suspected 0amilitant, 17 of them Saudis, sought in the raid had escaped. The suspects, the 0aofficial said, had served in Afghanistan or Chechnya and had links to radical 0aclerics.
A huge arms cache including 800 pounds of advanced explosives 0aalong with hand grenades, assault rifles, ammunition, disguises and tens of 0athousands of dollars in cash were seized in the raid, a Saudi official said.
Some diplomats said it was too early to draw any link between the 0aattacks on Monday and Al Qaeda. Other United States officials said Monday night 0athat initial suspicions were that Al Qaeda was behind the attack. They said the 0anearly simultaneous explosions were reminiscent of the attacks by Al Qaeda on 0aUnited States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
A senior government official who spoke on condition that neither 0ahis identity nor his nationality be disclosed said Monday night, "There's been a 0alot of chatter in the last six weeks involving possible attacks by Al Qaeda, and 0ait looks like this time they succeeded."
A Saudi newspaper editor, quoting witnesses in Riyadh, said that 0aat least one of the explosions, at the Hamra compound in northeast Riyadh, could 0abe seen from several miles away. The explosion was "huge," said the editor, 0aJamal Khashoggi of Al Watan.
News agency reports from Riyadh quoted witnesses as saying the 0aexplosions caused extensive property damage, leveling entire houses. The 0awitnesses said the force of the blast shook buildings and rattled windows.
Diplomats said the wounded foreigners were reportedly from the 0aHamra compound. The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite news channel reported that 0aa number of charred bodies were transferred to an area hospital.
Smoke lingered over the Hamra compound as police cars and 0aambulances rushed in. Hundreds of anti-riot policemen and members of the 0aNational Guard converged on the scene, evacuating compound residents and sealing 0aoff the area. Saudi security forces surrounded the three compounds, according to 0awire service reports from Saudi Arabia.
Officials with access to early reports suggested an element of 0aprecision in the attacks. In each case, they said, the attackers appeared to 0ahave shot their way into and out of the compound, and possibly used car bombs to 0aset off large explosions.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported three explosions, but 0agave no other details.
According to Saudi officials, the main attack was at the Hamra 0acompound, whose residents are divided roughly equally between Westerners and 0aArabs. Another attack was at a compound known as Granada, whose residents 0aincluded employees of a British aerospace company and, possibly, a British 0aschool, the Saudi official said.
The third attack, the Saudi official said, was at the premises of 0athe Vinnell Corporation, an American consultancy for the Saudi National Guard, 0awhich is headed by Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler.
A senior Saudi official said of the Hamra attack: "It appears 0athat the explosives were in a car. Many homes were affected, and it appears that 0athe number of injured is high."
According to The Associated Press, the fourth blast went off 0aearly this morning at the headquarters of the Saudi Maintenance Company, also 0aknown as Siyanco. The company is a joint-owned venture between Frank E. Basil 0aInc. of Washington, and local Saudi partners, The A.P. said.
A State Department spokeswoman, Nancy Beck, said Monday: "We are 0adeeply concerned about the reports of explosions in Riyadh. At this time we are 0aworking closely with the Saudi authorities to determine the facts."
Ms. Beck said the State Department was advising Americans in 0aRiyadh "to remain at home until we can ascertain the facts and the nature of any 0aongoing threat."
The attack against American targets in Saudi Arabia appears to 0ahave been the third major strike by suspected militant Islamists since the 0aPersian Gulf war in 1991.
In November 1995, five Americans and two Indians 0awere killed and 60 people were wounded in an explosion in a parking area near a 0amilitary training center in Riyadh run by the United States.
In June 1996, a bomb in a fuel truck killed 19 American soldiers 0aand wounded nearly 400 people at an American military housing complex in the 0aeastern city of Khobar.
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and 0aMedina. The withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia has been one of the 0amain demands of Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda leader and Saudi-born militant 0aaccused of plotting the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
American and Saudi officials announced last month that all but a 0asmall handful of the United States troops would be withdrawn from the kingdom by 0athis summer. The troops were primarily Air Force personnel who had been involved 0ain patrolling the skies over Iraq. Officials from both countries said the fall 0aof Saddam Hussein's government meant that they were no longer needed.
Officials at the Vinnell Corporation, which is based in Fairfax, 0aVa., did not respond to a request for comment late Monday. Frank Moore, a 0aspokesman for the corporation's parent company, Northrup Grumman, declined to 0acomment.
According to its Web site, Vinnell has provided military training 0aunder contract to the Saudi Arabian National Guard since 1975. In 1995, Vinnell 0aentered into a joint venture with the Saudi government to provide supplies 0atraining and logistics support.
The Saudi-based operation has focused on recruiting former 0aAmerican service personnel. The company Web site tells prospective job 0aapplicants that one of the positive aspects of working for Vinnell Saudi Arabia 0ais that applicants may "continue to do what you did in the military."
The recruitment page also emphasizes the benefits of a "tax free 0aincome" and minimum in-country expenses. Yet it acknowledges negative aspects, 0aor "cons," including tours away from home, no alcohol and "few Western cultural 0aamenities," as well as a "harsh physical and cultural environment."