Five Americans died and dozens of people were injured Monday when a bomb exploded near a U.S.-run training center for the Saudi Arabian national guard in the Saudi capital, the Pentagon said. It was the deadliest such attack against Americans in the Middle East since the Beirut bombings of 1983.
Two Islamic fundamentalist groups claimed responsibility for the bombing in Riyadh--one called the Tigers of the Gulf and another known as the Movement for Islamic Change in the Arabian Peninsula-Jihad Wing. However, U.S. officials said they had no confirmation that either group was involved.
Although officials said they suspect that the blast was set off by a car bomb, they cautioned that there was no way to tell for sure. "It's still very premature to speculate" about who carried out the bombing or how, one said.
"We still don't have clear facts on all aspects" of the case, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon told reporters. Another top official said there "still is a great deal of confusion" about details of the incident, including the total number of casualties. Some reports put the death toll at six, including the five Americans.
The attack, which U.S. officials said was carried out without the sort of warning that often accompanies such incidents, came as a shock to both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Although the Movement for Islamic Change has in the past called for American troops to leave the region, the group had not been heard from since late June. U.S. officials said they had never heard of the Tigers of the Gulf.
While there is no conclusive evidence yet that the United States was the sole target of the blast, U.S. officials seemed certain that the bomb was planted to kill Americans.
President Clinton reacted angrily to news of the bombing, pledging to reporters during an interview in the Oval Office that the United States will "devote an enormous effort" to bringing the perpetrators of the bombing to justice.
Monday night, the Administration sent a team of specially trained FBI agents and counterterrorism experts from the State Department to Saudi Arabia to help with the investigation.
"The United States is outraged by this cowardly act of terrorism, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters. He said the Saudi Arabian government is cooperating fully with the investigation.
Figures on the number of casualties resulting from the bombing still were sketchy late Monday. The Pentagon said five Americans were killed--two U.S. Army enlisted personnel and three civilian Army workers--and between 35 and 40 people were injured.
However, wire service reports quoted Saudi officials in Riyadh as putting the overall toll at six dead and about 60 wounded, both Americans and Saudis. Three of the injured Americans were said to be in critical condition.
U.S. officials said the bomb apparently went off in a parking lot near a three-story building used by a U.S. Army-run program that trains members of the Saudi Arabian national guard to use American-made tanks and other weapons.
Wire service reports said the blast, which occurred at 11:30 a.m., set off a fire that engulfed the headquarters and damaged several cars in the area. The explosion apparently was near a snack bar that was beginning to fill up.
U.S. authorities said there was confusion over whether there was a single explosion or one large explosion and a smaller blast. They said there were reports of a van being in the area at the time, but they could not firmly link it to the bombing.
"We're not ruling out any possibility," said a senior Defense Department official involved in the investigation.
Despite the absence of details, the explosion prompted serious queries about the security arrangements that were in place to protect U.S. personnel, both at the training center and at other facilities.
To help keep a low profile, the training center apparently was protected only by a small Saudi Arabian guard force. Officials said security was being beefed up at several U.S. installations but not in a very visible manner.
Burns told reporters Monday that "certainly part of the investigation that the United States government has now launched will encompass a lot of questions about what security measures were in place and what security measures should now be put in place."
But he and other senior U.S. officials asserted that the bombing will not deter the United States from continuing with its plans to maintain a large number of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and in other Middle Eastern countries.
Pentagon officials said the United States normally has about 12,000 troops in the region but currently has about 25,000 because it still is conducting "exercises" following Iraq's attempt to threaten Kuwait late last year.
Monday's blast marked the first such attack against Western military units in Saudi Arabia since 1991, when two Americans were wounded during an attack on a shuttle bus in the Red Sea city of Jiddah. No one claimed responsibility for that explosion.
The Army late Monday released the name of one of those killed in the explosion: Wayne Wiley, a 55-year-old retired major who was working for the program. It said the others will be made public after their families are notified.