Gun attack kills 5 foreigners in Saudi city

Religious militants are believed responsible

3 of 4 suspects shot dead

May 02, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Gunmen believed to be religious militants burst into an engineering office yesterday in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, shooting dead at least five foreign engineers and killing or wounding several Saudis. In their attempted getaway, the gunmen dragged a Western hostage behind their stolen vehicle, according to the U.S. Embassy, the Saudi News Agency and witnesses.

Five engineers - two Americans, two Britons and an Australian - died in the attack on the office of ABB Lummus, a Houston-based subsidiary of the giant Swiss engineering firm, said Bjorn Edlund, the company spokesman, in Zurich.

Two other Americans were hospitalized, but their condition was not immediately known, he said. The five dead were among 50 foreigners working on a project to upgrade an oil refinery run jointly by Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and ExxonMobil in Yanbu, a specially developed industrial city 190 miles north of Jidda on the Red Sea coast.

Three of the attackers were shot dead and the fourth was wounded and captured in a shootout, the Saudi News Agency reported.

The attack was the latest in a series carried out against Western and government targets inside the kingdom over the past year. It came less than two weeks after a suicide bombing in Riyadh on April 21 killed five people and wounded almost 150.

By hitting at foreigners in a main hub of the world's largest oil producer, the militants struck at the heart of the ties between Saudi Arabia and the West. The United States and other Western nations rely heavily for oil on Saudi Arabia, which in turn needs a large foreign work force to keep the industry running.

The attacks appear aimed at destabilizing the Saudi government. Given that heavy barriers surround most government offices and foreign residential compounds, attackers single out what one Saudi official called "targets of opportunity."

The militants want to force all Westerners from Arabia, and they label the Saudi ruling family as apostates to Islam for its close ties with the West.

The initial reports from Yanbu were confused as to the number of attacks that occurred in the city and the number of victims, but it appeared that the attack started with the shooting of the Americans, and then the attempted getaway spread carnage throughout the city.

Local reporters and other news sources quoted Yanbu residents as saying a number of shooting incidents occurred around a local American fast-food outlet and an American chain hotel, with at least one senior Saudi police officer killed and 28 people wounded.

A Western resident said a pipe bomb was thrown over the wall of the city's International School, injuring an employee, but that incident did not seem directly related to the office attack. No children were at the school at the time because pupils had been told to stay home after the gunmen struck at the engineering office earlier in the morning.

Western embassies and the first official statement from the Saudi government confirmed only one attack.

The American Embassy in Riyadh confirmed the deaths of two Americans but said their names could not be released, pending the notification of families. The British Embassy said it was investigating the incident. An Australian, Anthony Richard Mason, 57, was among the dead, a spokeswoman for the Australian Foreign Ministry in Canberra said.

Last month, the United States ordered the departure of nonessential U.S. government employees and family members from Saudi Arabia and urged private citizens to leave. The embassy had warned of "credible indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Saudi Arabia."

A brief report from the government-run Saudi News Agency quoted an official source at the Saudi Interior Ministry saying that four gunmen burst into the contracting building just before 7 a.m. yesterday.

The gunmen opened fire inside the building, then tried to flee by commandeering vehicles off the streets, while being pursued by Saudi police officers.

According to local press reports, the gunmen separated the Westerners from the Saudi employees and then opened fire on the Westerners.

One of the Westerners who survived the initial shooting was stripped, tied to a stolen vehicle and dragged through the streets as the assailants fled, according to witnesses interviewed by reporters from The Saudi Gazette, an English-language paper in Jidda.

It was not immediately known if the man survived.

Pictures broadcast from the scene showed a security vehicle riddled with bullets, with one bloody leg hanging out the back door.

The police sport utility vehicle had been commandeered by the attackers, and then security forces opened fire on it.

Word of the attack quickly spawned gloating remarks on the Web sites that are the haunt of the supporters of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

Although the attack could not immediately be tied to al-Qaida, bin Laden and his assistants have called on Muslims to attack Americans and other Westerners wherever they find them.

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