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Saudis rush to assure world after Qaeda attack
Updated: 2004-06-01 08:57

Saudi Arabia's leaders rushed to assure the world they were in full control but crude prices jumped back over US$40 a barrel on Tuesday after a suspected al Qaeda attack on the kingdom's oil sector.

Saudis read the news in the lobby of a hotel in the eastern city of al-Khobar following the bloody rampage by suspected al-Qaeda militants which killed 22 people. [AFP]

Twenty-two people were killed in the shooting and hostage-taking rampage at the weekend, the second major strike in a month on the Saudi oil industry.

Britain warned more attacks were probable in the kingdom, the world's biggest oil exporter.

"(Attacks) are clearly possible. I would go further than that and say they are probable," said Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sherard Cowper-Coles, whose country is the second largest investor in Saudi Arabia behind the United States.

A Briton was among 19 foreigners killed in the attack in the eastern city of Khobar, which like other oil hubs in Saudi Arabia is home to a large Western workforce.

"These criminal acts by deviants will only strengthen our resolve to fight terrorism," said Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, as security forces stepped up efforts to crack down on Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, which has vowed to topple him.

The king has been in poor health since a stroke in 1995 and his rare public statement seemed to signal the importance the royal family attached to showing it was on top of the situation.


President Bush called Crown Prince Abdullah to condemn the attack and praised Saudi security forces for "saving many hostages," the state Saudi Press Agency said.

But as pictures of the bloodbath were beamed around the world, Western countries urged their citizens to either leave Saudi Arabia or not to go the kingdom unless it was essential.

"There were pools of blood. Blood is everywhere," said a member of the staff at the luxury Oasis compound, scene of a 25-hour hostage standoff. He declined to be identified.

"This raises the fear factor," Tony Nunan, manager of risk management at Mitsubishi Corp in Tokyo, said of the attack.

U.S. crude futures rose 1.7 percent to US$40.55 a barrel in opening electronic dealings on Tuesday. The market was closed on Monday for a public holiday.

Many analysts doubt U.S. crude prices will break new ground above a 21-year peak this month at $41.85 a barrel, but say the attack serves as a sharp reminder of the vulnerability of already stretched global supplies.

The heavily protected Saudi oil infrastructure has not been hit, nor oil flows disrupted. But some traders fear militants may shift from soft targets to production and export facilities.

Saudi authorities, who dropped commandos onto a rooftop in the Oasis compound to end the hostage standoff, set up security checkpoints across the country after three of the militants escaped by using hostages as human shields.


Officials said nine hostages -- including some Westerners -- were killed by the militants, dressed in military uniforms and armed with grenades and machine guns.

The building where the hostages were held was still sealed off after the siege, but bullet holes, blood stains, shattered glass, empty cartridges and grenades provided evidence of the havoc, said one witness, declining to be named.

Westerners were also among those killed earlier when the militants opened fire on the Al-Khobar Petroleum Center building, housing offices of major Western oil firms, and then swept through housing compounds.

The militants dragged the body of the dead Briton through the streets behind a car, witnesses said. The body of an American suffered the same fate in an attack on a petrochemical site in the Red Sea town of Yanbu earlier in May.

The Interior Ministry listed the dead as an American, a Briton, an Italian, a South African, a Swede, eight Indians, two Sri Lankans, three Filipinos, an Egyptian boy and three Saudis. It said 25 people were wounded.

Officials said 41 people had been held hostage and that 201 were trapped inside the compound during the standoff.

They said Saudi forces wounded and captured the leader of the militants. It was unclear how many militants were involved.


A purported al Qaeda statement on the Internet said the group carried out the attack.

Al Qaeda's top leader in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, vowed 2004 would be "bloody and miserable" for the kingdom. Last week he issued plans for urban guerrilla warfare.

In 1996, the then little known group chose Khobar for one of its first big attacks, killing 19 U.S. soldiers.

Arab countries joined in the condemnation and many will be at an OPEC meeting later this week at which Saudi Arabia is proposing production increases to help ease present high oil prices that threaten to stunt global economic growth.

State-owned oil company Saudi Aramco has vowed to keep supplies flowing smoothly.

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