Militants Kill 5 Westerners Working in Saudi Arabia

Times Staff Writer

Gunmen burst into an oil contractor's office in the Saudi petrochemical hub of Yanbu and opened fire Saturday, killing at least five foreign workers, including two American engineers, in the latest attack in Saudi Arabia blamed on Islamic militants.

After the shooting, attackers tied one of the victims to the back of a car and drove through the streets past stunned bystanders, said Khaled Batarfi, editor of the Arab News paper in Jiddah. Batarfi and media reports quoted witnesses as saying the man had been stripped naked; some said he was still alive.

The four attackers then led security officers on an hourlong chase through the city. Although details of the morning attack were still murky late Saturday, Saudi officials said three of the attackers had been killed. The fourth was wounded and captured, but later died. At least one Saudi officer was killed and 25 people were wounded.

"It was horrible, the way that it was done, and it has shamed us all as Saudis," said Batarfi, who said he saw photographs of the bloodied pavement and spoke with witnesses. "Dragging a man in the streets is a humiliation of God's gift. It is a shock that they would act in such a barbaric and un-Islamic way."

The gunmen used company uniforms and badges to enter the contractor's office and attack the employees of ABB Lummus, the energy arm of engineering company ABB. A plant co-owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. and Saudi company SABIC is across the street. A Saudi official said the attackers were Islamist militants, and at least one of the gunmen once worked at the plant.

The rampage was the latest in a string of assaults that has rattled Saudi Arabia as security in the vast oil-rich kingdom deteriorates. Authorities have been cracking down on militants for a year, since coordinated suicide bombs tore through three housing compounds in Riyadh last May. But despite the flurry of arrests, shootouts and high-profile seizures of weapons, the attacks have continued.

The violence comes amid mounting fears that bloodshed in Iraq and fury against the U.S. and its Arab allies has dangerously destabilized the region.

Saudi Arabia was still recovering from a suicide car bombing 11 days ago that targeted a police station in the heart of the capital, Riyadh. Elsewhere in the Middle East last week, militants staged a car bombing and shootout in the streets of Damascus and the Jordanian government said intelligence officers had thwarted a chemical bomb attack meant to kill 80,000 people.

The United States evacuated its nonessential diplomatic staff days before the latest Riyadh suicide bombing and urged Americans who were private residents to leave. Washington has warned of "credible indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Saudi Arabia."

Foreign workers are crucial to Saudi Arabia's oil-based economy, and about 30,000 Americans live in the kingdom.

The slain American engineers were among hundreds of foreigners working in Yanbu for ABB Lummus. A British employee of the company, a British contractor and an Australian employee also were killed, spokesman Bjorn Edlund told Associated Press. Two more American employees were wounded in the attack, and one of them was in critical condition, Edlund said. He wasn't sure how many others had been wounded.

Jamal Khashoggi, advisor to the Saudi ambassador in London, said the gunmen were two brothers and their two uncles, members of a local family. One of the men was on the kingdom's list of fugitive militants. He had fled to Yemen and then secretly returned, Khashoggi said.

The gunmen wore vests laden with explosives, another Saudi official said. It was unclear whether the three attackers who died before they could be captured had been killed by security officials or had blown themselves up.

The fighting spilled from the scene of the original attack into a residential neighborhood. The militants tried to attack a housing compound, according to a statement from the interior minister, but guards exchanged fire with them and prevented them from entering. Shootouts were reported outside a Holiday Inn and a McDonald's restaurant.

It took Saudi security forces an hour to catch the gunmen, Khashoggi said, "and that is not good news."

Saudi TV footage showed a victim sprawled across the blood-soaked front seat of a sport utility vehicle, one leg hanging out the door.

Also Saturday, a pipe bomb was hurled over a wall at Yanbu International School. A custodian was slightly injured, and there was no serious damage. No children were present.

Crown Prince Abdullah gave a speech to Saudi dignitaries blaming "Zionists" for the anti-government insurgency. "It became clear to us now that Zionism is behind terrorist attacks in the Kingdom," the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying.

Despite the prince's remarks, the insurgency has forced the kingdom into introspection. Editorials have become freer to question the preaching, curriculum and government policies that bred a generation of jihadists. The Islamists reject the Saudi government, calling it apostate despite the rigid religious rules that govern the kingdom.

"Unfortunately, the children of the kingdom have turned against the kingdom," said Abdellah Dohailan, a scholar with Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

In Washington, Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan called the attack "vicious and murderous."

"This is a cowardly act carried out by criminals who have turned their backs on their faith and on all of humanity," he said in a statement.

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