The Wall Street Journal: Hostages Are Released After Saudi Crisis Ends
May 30, 2004 3:44 a.m.
Saudi Arabia — Saudi authorities freed American, European and other foreign hostages Sunday after a shooting rampage turned into a daylong standoff, and a Saudi security official said the lead attacker was in custody and two other suspected Islamic militants were being arrested.
The Saudi security official wouldn’t comment on the whereabouts or conditions of the hostages, saying only: “It has ended. One has been arrested and two are in the process of being arrested — they are surrounded.” With reports of up to seven gunmen, it wasn’t clear if some of the gunmen had been killed.
At least 10 people died in a crisis that ended about 25 hours after it began Saturday morning. Gunmen in military-style dress opened fire and exchanged shots with Saudi security forces at two oil industry compounds housing offices and employee apartments in Khobar, 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Riyadh. They fled up the street, taking hostages in a high-rise in Oasis Residential Resorts.
Several Saudi newspapers reported Sunday that the attackers threw at least one body from the building where they were holed up and had mutilated some of the bodies of those they killed.
Reporters were kept back from the compound, but a bus carrying Saudi troops and other police and military vehicles could be seen pulling out. As forces withdrew, a Saudi soldier flashed a V-for-victory sign from the window of his gun-mounted vehicle. Soon after, six ambulances lined up to enter the compound.
Saudi security forces earlier had stormed the walled housing compound and surrounded the attackers on the sixth floor of a building. A security official said one attempt during the night to storm the building where the hostages were being held was abandoned after booby traps were discovered.
But just after sunrise, three security forces helicopters arrived and dropped off commandos. Moderate gunfire, heard sporadically overnight, rang out again. Within a few hours, the standoff was over.
Security officials have said 45 to 60 people were being held hostage, mostly Westerners including Americans, Italians and Dutch. But in Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry said there were no Italians among the hostages.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry said three Dutch hostages had been released.
A statement posted on several Islamic Web sites claimed the attack in the name of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigade and was signed the “al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula.” It said the attacks targeted U.S. companies and that a number of “crusaders” had been killed.
One Saudi official security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the method of the attack was “definitely inspired by al-Qaida.” The second deadly assault this month against the Saudi oil industry came as oil prices have been driven to new highs partly by fears that the Saudi kingdom — the world’s largest oil producer — is unable to protect itself from terrorists.
“The terrorists’ goal is to disrupt the Saudi economy and destabilize our country. But they will not succeed,” Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan said in a statement released in Washington. “With every desperate act of violence, our effort and resolve to destroy the terrorists only grows.” The Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya reported the Saudi oil minister met with oil executives to assure them that the attack wouldn’t affect oil supplies. He planned to meet ambassadors on Sunday for the same purpose, the station said without attribution.
Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born, anti-Western Islamic extremist blamed for past terror attacks in Saudi Arabia and the U.S., has vowed to destabilize the oil industry and undermine the kingdom for its close ties to the U.S.
Michael Rothman, chief energy strategist at Merrill Lynch in New York, said there might be “a limited psychological reaction” in oil markets but that the Khobar attack wouldn’t affect supply.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said about 10 Saudis and foreigners were killed in the Khobar attack. The Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh, quoting security officials in its Sunday edition, put the number dead at 16, including seven Saudi security agents. An American man, a 10-year-old Egyptian boy and three Filipinos were among those confirmed killed. British citizens and Saudi guards were also reportedly among the dead.
The Arab News, quoting witnesses, said the attackers dragged the body of an unidentified victim behind their car along a highway. Gunmen who attacked an oil contractor’s office in western Saudi Arabia earlier this month dragged the body of an American victim from the bumper of their car.
According to Oasis residents and an employee, the militants asked questions when they arrived that indicated they were trying to separate Muslims from non-Muslims.
Islamic militants have been criticized in the Arab world for previous attacks in which Saudis and other Arabs were killed.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Chammat, told the Associated Press that five Lebanese hostages had been released.
One of them, Orora Naoufal, said she cowered in her apartment with her 4-year-old son for five hours after a brief encounter with two of the gunmen, whom she described as clean-shaven and wearing military uniforms.
She told AP by telephone that the gunmen asked her where the “infidels” and foreigners were, and whether she was Muslim or Christian.
“I replied: ‘I am Lebanese and there are no foreigners here.”‘ She said the gunmen told her to “Go convert to Islam, and cover up and go back to your country.” The Oasis compound is upscale expatriate housing that includes neighborhood necessities — shops, restaurants, playgrounds, fitness centers — in addition to a hotel and leisurely extras such as a grassy beach in a private Gulf cove and an ice-skating rink, according to the compound’s Web site.
One of the targeted oil industry compounds contains offices and apartments for the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation, or Apicorp, and the other — the Petroleum Center building — houses various international firms.
The Egyptian boy who was killed was the son of an Apicorp employee, said Mahmoud Ouf, an Egyptian consular officer in Riyadh. Apicorp, in a brief statement published in the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah on Sunday, said three of its employees were among the dead. Apicorp is the investment arm of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Countries.
Offices at the Petroleum Center include a joint venture among Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Total SA and Saudi Aramco; Lukoil Holdings of Russia; and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec. All of those employees were safe, said Shell spokesman Simon Buerk and a Saudi oil industry official, Yahya Shinawi, though it wasn’t clear whether other companies had accounted for all their employees.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said an American man who worked for an oil company was confirmed dead, but didn’t identify him or his employer.
The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia reiterated a call to its citizens to leave the kingdom.
In London, the British Foreign Office was investigating reports that a British citizen was killed.
Saudi Arabia relies heavily on 6 million expatriate workers to run its oil industry and other sectors. The kingdom produces about 8 million barrels of oil a day.
Saudi Arabia launched a high-profile crackdown on terrorists after attacks on Riyadh housing compounds in 2003. The most recent attack targeted the offices of Houston, Texas-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. in the western city of Yanbu on May 1, killing six Westerners and a Saudi.
Many expatriates left after the Yanbu attack.
The Saudi crackdown on extremists has included a public relations campaign aimed at discouraging Saudis from offering any kind of support to extremists. The shock of terrorism at home has led to an unprecedented public discussion in Saudi Arabia about whether the austere version of Islam expounded in the kingdom might contribute to extremist violence.
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press