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Bombs Target Westerners in Saudi Arabia

Blasts at three housing complexes in the capital kill as many as 10 and injure scores on the eve of a visit by Powell, who points to Al Qaeda.

May 13, 2003|Greg Miller, Josh Meyer and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

AMMAN, Jordan — Explosions rattled the Saudi capital of Riyadh late Monday in what appeared to be coordinated attacks on three residential compounds known to house many Americans and other Westerners, U.S. officials said.

Initial reports from witnesses said there were numerous casualties, including deaths, in the attacks, which came on the eve of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's planned visit to the country.

At least one death was confirmed by a source in the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, while other reports put the number at more than three. "We know this is going to be bad, we just don't know how bad," the official said.

U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert W. Jordan told BBC radio today that 10 people may have died.

"There are preliminary reports of upwards of 40 Americans in hospital and considerable numbers of other nationalities in hospital and very likely fatalities in the two to six to 10 range," Jordan said.

Suspicions among U.S. counter-terrorism officials centered on the Al Qaeda terrorist network, headed by Osama bin Laden. Last week, Saudi authorities engaged in a shootout in Riyadh with suspected members of a terrorist cell believed to have links to Al Qaeda.

As part of that operation, Saudi officials uncovered a cache of explosives and weapons and said the cell appeared to have been plotting large-scale attacks. None of the 19 suspects identified by Saudi authorities had been captured, and U.S. officials said the cell may have been behind this week's bombings.

"I'm not saying for sure this was connected, but that's where the smart money is," one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were a lot of Al Qaeda people [the Saudis] were trying to get."

At a morning news conference today in Amman, Powell attributed the bombing to terrorists, most likely members of Al Qaeda.

The bombing "has the earmarks of Al Qaeda, especially in the attempts to kill innocents," Powell told reporters before continuing his trip.

"Al Qaeda has been weakened but not destroyed," he said before the flight to Saudi Arabia. "All it means is that we have to stay on guard.

"We will not shrink from the tasks before us," he said.

According to Saudi officials, the four explosions began shortly before midnight.

"The three explosions that occurred in eastern Riyadh were suicide bombings," Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz told the Al Riyadh daily, the newspaper's Web site reported.

"They were set off by cars stuffed with explosives that were driven into the targeted compounds," he said.

The last blast was heard at the headquarters of Saudi Maintenance Co., a joint U.S.-Saudi private venture, according to Associated Press.

The CIA was still collecting information on the bombings but noted that agency officials had been alarmed in recent weeks by fresh indications that terrorist groups were planning attacks on American targets in Saudi Arabia.

That flurry of intelligence prompted the State Department to issue a travel advisory May 1 warning that "terrorist groups may be in the final phases" of planning attacks there.

In Washington, an FBI official said the bureau had deployed a team of agents stationed in Riyadh to investigate the bombings in hopes that responsible parties and any potential links to Powell's visit could be identified.

"You have to take a look at everything: You have Powell traveling in the area, the recent State Department warning and last week's plot," the FBI official said.

He said bureau officials in Washington were scrambling to get damage assessments and the names and conditions of Americans who might have been hurt or killed in the blasts.

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

A Western security official who lives at one of the bombing sites said the targets were upscale residential compounds that house Americans and other Westerners.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was out of the country at the time of the attack but said he had been given several briefings by witnesses.

"I can tell you there have been three compounds attacked: the Al Hamra, Jadawel and Vinnell compounds," the security official said. "We have no idea how many were killed, but I know that there are multiple injuries at the compounds."

Al Hamra Oasis Village and Jadawel are two of the most exclusive compounds in Riyadh, home to corporate managers and executives and their families. The Vinnell compound includes residences and offices of Vinnell Corp., a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary that provides advisors to the Saudi military.

Frank Moore, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, a Los Angeles-based defense contractor, said he couldn't confirm if any employees of Vinnell were injured or even if there was an explosion at the firm's compound, where about 800 employees live and work. Of those, about 300 are U.S. citizens.

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