Gulf on terror alert as blast hits Riyadh

At least five people died and some 100 were wounded when a midnight suicide car bombing tore apart an Arab housing compound west of Riyadh, officials said on Sunday, blaming the al-Qaeda terror network.

The atrocity came the same day the United States closed its missions in Saudi Arabia for a security review after warning of possible attacks, echoed by other Western states, amid celebrations for the holy month of Ramadan.

Osama bin Laden militants have been subjected to a relentless crackdown since last May’s triple bombings which left 35 dead in the capital.

“The method in which the bombing was executed is similar to that used in the May 12 bombings” of three expatriate residential compounds, said the official, requesting anonymity.

“This confirms that those who carried out the bombing belong to the al-Qaeda movement,” he said.

A high-ranking official at the site told AFP that at least five people—three Lebanese, one Sudanese and one Indian—were killed at the al-Muhaya complex in the Wadi Laban suburb, located behind the al-Yamama royal palace and overlooked by the palace of King Fahd’s youngest son, Prince Abdul Aziz.

“So far, 99 people are known to have been wounded,” he added.

An Arab woman died in the attack, one security official added, as rescue workers continued to dig through the wreckage of villas, six of which were totally destroyed.

Three US and three Canadian citizens, all of Arab descent, were among the wounded, said a source at the hospital where they were treated.

Compound manager Hanadi al-Khandakli said the complex comprised 200 villas, four inhabited by Western families, including two German and one French.

Residents said the fourth family was British. Other inhabitants are Arabs, including Saudis.

The Foreign Office in London said two Britons were unaccounted for.

“There are no fewer than 100 wounded and most of them are children,” al-Khandakli told AFP.

The blast occurred at 2100 GMT, a time when many families would have been gathered for the night-time festivities before the dawn-to-dusk fast observed during Ramadan, traditionally a month of reflection and alms-giving, particularly in the cradle of Islam.

Witnesses said the bomber’s vehicle had apparently been stolen from security forces.

“A car laden with explosives succeeded in penetrating the fortified compound surrounded by cement blocks,” a security officer at the site said.

“The car blew up inside the compound,” he added, but could not tell if one suicide bomber or more were involved.

An AFP correspondent at the scene saw the wreckage of the vehicle, which opened a crater around two metres deep.

At least 15 cars, including one with diplomatic license plates, were gutted.

The blast, which shook buildings as far off as the centre of the Saudi capital, was a “terrorist bombing”, the Saudi interior ministry said in a two-line statement.

Witnesses described flames engulfing a series of villas and residents, men women and many children—mostly expatriates from Arab countries—fleeing for their lives.

A dozen ambulances quickly arrived. Civil defense cars followed as security forces cordoned off the area and a helicopter buzzed overhead.

Compound owner Mohammad Saleh al-Muhaya described how the ordeal began when gunmen opened fire from a nearby hill before the apparently stolen police jeep drove in.

A Sudanese guard named Assi Makki Zain was shot dead, he said.

Security measures were supposed to have been tight after repeated warnings of the likelihood of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia.

“About 30 men from the Saudi National Guard were deployed in the area,” al-Muhaya said.

The stricken site lies beyond Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, which was closed off by security forces after the blast as Washington ordered its diplomatic staff and their families to remain in their homes and not leave the Riyadh area.

The Omani assistant secretary general for military affairs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), General Ali al-Maamari, lives in the bombed complex but was not there at the time of the attack.

Saudi security forces have detained hundreds of militants and seized large arms caches as part of the war on terror across the vast kingdom which has triggered repeated clashes with gunmen since May.

Security officials said two suspected Islamist extremists blew themselves up in Mecca on Thursday while a militant was gunned down in Riyadh in a shootout that left eight policemen lightly wounded.

The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia have all advised their citizens to defer non-essential travel to the oil-rich kingdom.

“The embassy continues to receive credible information the terrorists in Saudi Arabia have moved from the planning to operational phase of planned attacks in the kingdom,” the US embassy had said in a recorded “warden” message.

Britain on Saturday also pinpointed Bahrain and Qatar as countries where there was “a high threat from terrorism” against Western targets.

In the United States, media reported that al-Qaeda operatives may be planning to hijack cargo jets in Saudi Arabia, Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean and use them to attack power plants and other critical infrastructure.

The May 12 bombings came during a visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was due to arrive in Riyadh this week. - Sapa-AFP

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