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Three explosions rock Saudi capital
( 2003-11-09 08:41) (Associated Press)

Three explosions rocked a residential compound in the Saudi capital Saturday night, killing dozens of people in what the government described as a "terrorist" attack.

In this image made from video, a rescue worker observes the smouldering rubble after an explosion at a residential compound in Riyadh on Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003. [AP]
The midnight blast came after gunmen broke into the upscale compound of about 200 villas and exchanged fire with security guards, a Saudi government official said.

The official Saudi Press Agency, quoting an Interior Ministry official, described the attack as "terrorist."

There were conflicting reports of the number of dead and wounded. An official at a Riyadh hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said dozens of people were killed. The official said dozens more were wounded, and that Saudis, Germans, French and Italians lived in the 200 villas in the compound.

The manager of the targeted compound estimated that 100 people were wounded, and a resident said 20 to 30 people were killed, the Al-Arabiya television channel said. Officials at the King Khaled Specialist Hospital and the King Faisal Special Hospital & Research Center said the two hospitals received 38 injured people.

Flames could be seen still burning at the compound several hours after the explosion. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt in Washington said no Americans were hurt.

The attack occurred a day after the U.S. Embassy issued a warning that terror attacks could be imminent in the tense Gulf kingdom, and American diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia were closed Saturday as a result.

A May 12 attack on western residential compounds in Riyadh killed 35 people, including the nine attackers. It was blamed on the al-Qaida terror network, and Saudi authorities have arrested hundreds of suspected militants throughout the country since then. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudis.

Diplomats reported one big explosion about midnight, followed by two smaller ones 15 seconds apart. The streets were crowded with late night crowds because of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast during the day.

Dozens of police cars and ambulances raced toward the direction of the blasts, sirens wailing, and helicopters hovered overhead. Traffic was tied up across the city.

A woman living in the compound told reporters that "there is lot of blood" at the scene of the explosions.

"I am extremely terrified; I am really scared. I felt it was an earthquake," the woman said without identifying herself.

"Lots of houses are damaged, windows shattered and police echoing with sirens of ambulances," she said. "The ambulances were picking up lots of people. It looks like there are lots of people who died."

The Saudi government official said the explosions took place in the Muhaya compound. He said the attackers exchanged fire with the guards and he said there were apparently three explosions.

He said most of the wounded were believed to be children because their parents were out shopping during Ramadan. Most of the residents are Arabs and few Westerners live in the area.

Batt, the State Department spokesman, said initial reports indicated there were explosions and gunfire in Riyadh. She referred to explosions at three compounds that housed Westerners but acknowledged the compounds could have been all in the same complex.

Hanadi al-Ghandaki, manager of the targeted compound, told al-Arabiya that about 100 people were wounded, mostly children "because most adults were outside the compound at that time." She did not elaborate.

Rabie Hadeka, a resident inside the targeted compound, told the Al-Arabiya television network that "about 20 to 30 people have been killed and 50 to 60 injured."

She told Al-Arabiya that "shattered glass was spread everywhere after we heard three very strong explosions."

An Arab diplomat, who declined to be identified further, told the AP that he heard that 31 people were injured, 27 lightly and four seriously. He made no comment about deaths.

Police said the explosions were three miles from one of the entrances to the Saudi capital's diplomatic quarter.

"We heard a very strong explosion and we saw the fire," Bassem al-Hourani, who said he was a resident at the targeted compound, told Al-Arabiya in a telephone interview.

"I heard screams of the children and women. I don't know what happened to my friends if anybody was injured," he said. "All the glass in my house were shattered."

Almost all the foreign embassies in Riyadh including the U.S. Embassy and most diplomats' homes are inside the diplomatic quarter, an isolated neighborhood whose entrances are guarded. But there are several residential compounds housing Western business people relatively near the diplomatic quarter.

A western diplomat said he got a call from a friend who reported seeing smoke rising from a building on the other side of the diplomatic quarter near an area where the palaces of the royal family's senior princes are located.

The city's main palaces, including those of senior princes and the king's sprawling Riyadh residence, are just outside the east side of the diplomatic quarter. Each of the palaces is behind a high wall, with automatic gates for cars to drive through, and guards.

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