KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia - Authorities searched without success yesterday for the suspected Islamic gunmen who terrorized oil company offices and housing compounds in this city over the weekend.
The men disappeared in a stolen car Sunday morning after killing 22 people and have managed to evade a nationwide manhunt ever since.
Investigators spent yesterday sifting through blood-stained rooms in the luxury Oasis resort compound where the gunmen had taken about 50 hostages, many of them foreigners, and holed up for 25 hours while Saudi forces swarmed outside.
Checkpoints, sandbags and soldiers had risen on the smooth highways stretching through the wastes of desert.
But the fugitives remain elusive and a source of growing embarrassment for the kingdom. Officials have spent the past days repeatedly insisting that they're in control of security and capable of protecting their oil facilities.
But they've also had to acknowledge that three gun-toting men managed to slip through the grip of hundreds of Saudi commandos and vanish into a spare landscape of strip malls and coastal desert plains.
The weekend shooting rampage and hostage standoff was the second attack in less than a month on the kingdom's oil interests.
The global fallout won't become clear until financial markets reopen today. But in Khobar, fear and doubt are already running deep.
"The big question around town," said one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity, "is how did these guys escape?"
Weary compound residents gathered in a hotel lobby in downtown Khobar to pore over newspaper accounts and swap tales of trauma last night. Many of them had more questions than answers.
The government said the gunmen used hostages as human shields, but many compound residents were incredulous.
Asked whether he understood how the gunmen managed to get away, a Jordanian investment manager who gave his name as Abu Yasser glanced over both shoulders, then mouthed an exaggerated and silent "no."
"According to the news, they took some hostages" with them to make their escape, said Abu Yasser, who has been in Saudi Arabia for four decades and lives in a villa in the Oasis complex. "But according to our compound, no."
Security forces reportedly arrested a Muslim preacher from a small Khobar mosque yesterday on suspicion of having contact with the militants.
Authorities also have custody of Nimir al Bigami, believed to be the ringleader of the weekend attacks. But Bigami was reportedly wounded so badly in the shootout that his companions left him for dead, and it isn't clear whether he has been able to answer questions.
This attack was one of the most scarring in a long year of violence, and the kingdom is still reeling. Saudi Arabia's top religious authority, Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheik, blasted the attackers as "enemies' puppets."
Saudi Arabia depends heavily upon 6 million foreign workers to keep the kingdom running. Many analysts believe the weekend attack, along with a May 1 shooting attack on another oil-related compound in western Saudi Arabia, are designed to undermine international confidence in the royal family, drive away frightened foreign workers and rattle the oil industry.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.