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Americans advised on leaving Saudi Arabia
( 2003-12-18 10:47) (Agencies)

Nonessential American diplomats and the families of all U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia should leave, the State Department said Wednesday, stepping up its warnings about risks in the country.

Private U.S. citizens also should consider departing, the department said. Americans making plans to go to Saudi Arabia were advised to defer any such travel in light of "the potential for further terrorist activities."

The departure of U.S. officials and family members was voluntary, with the U.S. government covering the expenses.

"We remain fully confident that Saudi authorities are doing everything they can to protect their citizens and foreign nationals in the kingdom against terrorist attacks," department spokesman Lou Fintor said. He said the department's decision was "based on the reality that the terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia remains at a critical level."

Security was tight in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with a heavy police presence in the city and armored personnel carries and heavily armed soldiers outside Western housing compounds and at key intersections. Police and soldiers manned roadblocks and checkpoints, and there was beefed-up security outside the diplomatic quarter, where a number of Western embassies are located.

Americans who travel to the kingdom or remain there despite the warning were told to register with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the consulates in Jiddah and Dhahran.

"The U.S. government continues to receive indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests," the department said. Americans in Saudi Arabia were advised to remain vigilant, "particularly in public places associated with the Western community."

No single specific threat or piece of intelligence led to the department's action, said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Instead, the decision was based on a review of the entire terrorism picture in the kingdom.

There are some 200 to 300 nonessential U.S. officials and family members in Saudi Arabia, and about 30,000 U.S. citizens in all.

Travel by American officials and their families in Riyadh already is restricted to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Last month, a housing compound in Riyadh was bombed, killing 17 people and wounding more than 100. Police arrested a Saudi citizen believed to have helped smuggle in from Yemen the weapons used in the attack, the Saudi daily Okaz reported Wednesday.

American and Saudi officials blamed that attack and suicide bombings at three other housing projects in May on Saudi exile Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. Thirty-five people, including nine attackers were killed.

The State Department responded by ordering nonessential U.S. officials and family members to depart.

The diplomatic quarter east of Riyadh has been guarded heavily by Saudi armed forces since the suicide attacks.

Saudi officials say most of the weapons used in militant operations in Saudi Arabia including the May suicide attacks were smuggled from Yemen.

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