Truck Bomb Kills 19 Americans at an Air Base in Saudi Arabia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A powerful truck bomb exploded outside a high-rise apartment building housing U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night, killing 19 Americans and injuring more than 300 others, U.S. officials said.

A visibly angry President Clinton vowed to track down and punish the bombers. He dispatched a team of FBI bomb specialists to the scene to assist Saudi investigators. The bombing was the second against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia in less than a year.

A Pentagon statement said the bomb, contained in a fuel truck, exploded outside a U.S. housing compound on a Saudi air base near Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia. Saudi, French and British personnel are also stationed at the base.

The blast, so powerful it was heard in the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain, destroyed one building and blasted a crater 35 feet deep and 85 feet across.

"The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists, and if that is the case, like all Americans, I am outraged by it," Clinton said at the White House.

"We will pursue this," he said. "America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished."

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, campaigning in Cleveland, said he wanted to "express my sorrow, obviously, to those who might have been injured."

A senior Pentagon official said all of the dead and wounded counted so far are Americans. About 105 of the wounded were in serious condition. There may be additional casualties to Saudis and, perhaps, British or French, he said.

It was the worst Middle East terrorist attack against Americans since the 1983 bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

The State Department said Ted Kattouf, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, traveled to Dhahran as soon as he received word of the attack. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson, commander of the U.S. air wing in Saudi Arabia, was the senior U.S. military officer on the scene.

The Pentagon said the blast occurred around 10 p.m. local time, an hour when many off-duty personnel would be in the Khobar Towers housing compound.

The senior Pentagon official said the truck was driven within 35 yards of the towers. He said an Air Force guard spotted the truck and immediately informed U.S. and Saudi security forces. The official said the drivers of the truck saw the Saudi police coming, leaped out of the truck and were picked up by a white car that sped away.

The Saudi guards tried to evacuate the building, but there was no time. The truck blew up within three or four minutes after the drivers escaped.

No organization claimed responsibility for the bombing, but comrades of four Muslim militants who were beheaded by Saudi authorities last month had vowed vengeance against American interests. The four men, all Saudi citizens, were condemned for setting off a car bomb Nov. 13 at a U.S.-run military training facility in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two Indians.

The senior Pentagon official said security was tightened at U.S. installations throughout Saudi Arabia after the November bombing. Security was further tightened after Tuesday's blast, he said.

But the White House brushed aside suggestions that the attack might cause Washington to draw down its military presence in the region.

"It's a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy that our presence in that part of the world helps limit the conflict and the tension that does exist," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that although many details of the bombing were still unknown, "the most troubling fact we do know is that it occurred adjacent to a secure housing complex."

Echoing Clinton, Gingrich said, "It is imperative that this brutal act of inhumanity be fully investigated and those responsible punished."

Finding the bombers may be difficult, but if the perpetrators are apprehended, they can expect harsh punishment in Saudi Arabia's severe justice system.

The blast underlined how even one of the world's most conservative Islamic governments--the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina--has been beset by threat of extremists.

The Sunni militants opposed to the regime detest the ruling Saud dynasty not for secular policies, as elsewhere in the Arab world, but for alleged corruption and mismanagement and its close ties to the United States, particularly the stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops on Saudi territory during the Persian Gulf War and a continuing U.S. presence ever since. The bombing comes in the midst of an uncertain transition of power in the 63-year-old kingdom.

King Faud, 75, who marked his 14th year on the throne this month, has been ailing since suffering a stroke in December and in January temporarily turned over power to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah.

Since then, there has been recurring rumors about the monarch's health. Crown Prince Abdullah represented the kingdom at meetings of Arab heads of state in Damascus and Cairo in recent weeks to discuss the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Although Saudi Arabia sits atop one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves, and remains the world's largest producer and exporter, it has not proved immune from economic difficulties in recent years.

The Persian Gulf War cost the kingdom an estimated $55 billion, and spending cutbacks by the government last year in an unsuccessful attempt to rein in a budget deficit have led to grumbling from a population used to cradle-to-grave coddling.

Meanwhile, the twin threats of Iraq and Iran have forced the government to step up spending on armaments and to keep thousands of U.S. military personnel in the country, creating further strains.

In Washington, the first public word of the attack came from Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, who was handed a note containing the news while testifying at a hearing of the House National Security Committee. Choking back tears, Widnall told lawmakers of the bombing and excused herself to hurry back to the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials said the Air Force's 4404th Air Wing is based at the site. At least 2,000 Americans are stationed there.

Besides the U.S. Air Force personnel living in the housing area, there were also Army soldiers who operate a Patriot air defense unit.

In Jerusalem, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said U.S. officials in Dhahran would help the Saudis track down those who "committed this crime."

"Obviously this is a horrific event," said Burns, who accompanied Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Israel.

Staff writers Art Pine in Washington and John Daniszewski in Cairo contributed to this report.

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