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06 Dec 2004 14:04
Gunmen suspected of links to al-Qaeda stormed the United States consulate in the Saudi port of Jeddah on Monday, triggering a three-hour siege and a shootout that left three attackers and four guardsmen dead, police and officials said.
The brazen attack was the first of its kind on a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia but was the latest in a series of bombings and shootings blamed on al-Qaeda in the oil-rich kingdom since May 2003.
The gunmen attacked the consulate compound overlooking the beachfront in the Red Sea city in a hail of gunfire and explosions that set off a fire and sent plumes of black smoke into the sky.
Initial reports said staff at the consulate had been seized by the attackers before the security forces moved in, but a police officer at the scene later said no one had been held hostage.
“A gang affiliated to the deviant group hurled explosives on the gate of the US consulate in Jeddah at 11am on Monday and then entered the area surrounding the consulate,” the Interior Ministry said.
Saudi authorities use the term “deviant group” to refer to suspected sympathisers of al-Qaeda who have killed more than 90 people and wounded hundreds in the past 19 months.
“Security forces dealt with them immediately and brought the situation under control. Three of the attackers were killed and two were arrested after they were wounded.
The authorities concerned are following up the incident,” said the ministry statement, quoted by the official SPA news agency.
A police officer at the scene said at least four national guardsmen were killed and several more wounded when they clashed with the gunmen.
The ministry did not mention casualties among the security forces, but said it would issue a more detailed account later.
US officials said all Americans at the consulate were safe and accounted for, although Carol Kalin, spokesperson at the US embassy in the capital, Riyadh, said two non-American staff members were wounded.
The embassy was still in the process of confirming the status of the rest of local staff members, she added.
Police initially said consulate employees were taken hostage during the attack, which lasted about three hours.
But a police officer at the scene later said about 18 staff members had taken refuge in the administrative section of the mission and no one was taken hostage.
Saudi security forces sealed off the consulate, where a fire raged inside the compound, sending smoke spewing into the grey December sky, witnesses said after reporting at least two explosions in the area.
A witness said Saudi national guardsmen pushed into the compound in a blaze of gunfire, while police cars and an ambulance rushed to the scene.
Two Saudi security men outside the main gate were hit by bullets from within the consulate but it was not known if they were among the four reported dead.
As US authorities tried to assure the safety of Americans in the rest of the city, the US embassy in Riyadh and consulate in the eastern oil city of Dhahran closed as “a precautionary measure”, Kalin said.
Hundreds of people suspected of being linked to the al-Qaeda network of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden have been detained in regular sweeps by security forces as they battle the violence.
Many suspected Islamist militants and security forces have also been killed in regular shootouts.
Americans have often been on the receiving end of the spate of attacks that began in May last year.
In 1996, an explosives-laden truck destroyed a US military housing complex in the eastern city of Al-Khobar, killing 19 US nationals.
The US consulate fronts on to the beach in the heart of Jeddah, dubbed the Paris of Arabia or the “Bride of the Red Sea”—a bustling mix of modern and ancient where old mud houses vie for space with skyscrapers.—Sapa-AFP
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