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U.S. Warns of Threat in Saudi City; Bombers Hit Pakistan Sites

The alert for Jidda comes as Western sites are hit in Pakistan and as Lebanon says it foiled a plot to target the American Embassy.

May 16, 2003|Greg Miller and David Kelly | Times Staff Writers

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The State Department issued an alert late Thursday warning that terrorists may be planning to attack American targets soon in the Saudi city of Jidda, triggering a new wave of fear among Westerners in the region even as a U.S. team arrived in the country to investigate Monday's car bombings here in the capital.

The department said it had received warning of a possible terrorist strike in the prestigious Al Hamra district of Jidda, a thriving financial center through which millions of pilgrims pass on the way to nearby Mecca.

The report indicated that an attack "may occur in the near future," and the department said some U.S. Consulate families in the neighborhood had already been relocated.

A U.S. official in Washington said he was not familiar with the unconfirmed report that prompted the alert but said there had been a flurry of disturbing intelligence in recent days and weeks pointing to possible attacks on American and other targets around the world.

"There's a number of indicators of potential terrorist attacks in a variety of places," the official said.

He noted that recent intelligence has also pointed to possible strikes in Kenya, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The alert came at the end of a day in which Western-owned properties were attacked in Pakistan and officials in Lebanon said the military there had foiled a plot targeting the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

The White House continued to pressure the Saudi government Thursday, saying it expected full access and cooperation in investigating the triple bombing that killed 34 people, including seven Americans, and left 194 others wounded. Nine suicide bombers were among the dead.

A Terrorism Problem

"The bombing makes it clear that Saudi Arabia has a terrorism problem," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said.

"Saudi Arabia and the United States have worked together and need to work together, on a continuing basis and an improving basis."

Ashcroft's comments came a day after administration officials scolded the Saudi government, saying it had failed to heed U.S. requests for extra security at residential compounds and to move more aggressively against a cluster of Al Qaeda cells believed to be operating in the country.

The joint CIA-FBI investigative team sent from Washington includes six FBI agents who spent Thursday meeting with Saudi officials and representatives of the U.S. Embassy.

The agents -- specialists in evidence recovery, forensics and explosives -- are to inspect the Al Hamra Oasis Village, Jadawel and Vinnell compounds in Riyadh today, an FBI official said.

But even as the FBI and the CIA team prepared to make its first visit to the rubble in Riyadh, 21 Shell and Caltex gas stations were bombed in Pakistan.

Three workers and a security guard reportedly were injured in the small bomb attacks.

The Royal Dutch-Shell Group is an Anglo-Dutch company with a subsidiary in the United States. Caltex is a brand of California-based ChevronTexaco.

3 Suspects Captured

Pakistani officials also said they had captured three suspected Al Qaeda operatives, including two Pakistanis and one believed to be Arab, in an operation near the port city of Karachi.

In Lebanon, officials said the military had detained nine suspects accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in the capital, as well as other Western diplomatic missions.

There was no indication that those detained were linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Associated Press, citing a statement from the Lebanese government, said the suspects were arrested with the help of Syrian forces.

The Bush administration has been sharply critical of Syria in recent months, accusing the country of meddling in the war in Iraq.

U.S. officials said that they could not substantiate claims of a plot targeting the embassy in Beirut and that neither the CIA nor other agencies were involved in the arrests of the nine suspects.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the arrests may have taken place some time ago.

"The Lebanese have been, for the last several weeks and months, actively pursuing suspected terrorists," the official said.

"It's possible these are individuals who have been picked up over time and they are now acknowledging some of them."

Both U.S. and Saudi officials say Al Qaeda was probably behind Monday's bombings in Riyadh.

Among the suspects being sought by Saudi officials is an Al Qaeda operative with ties to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind who has been in U.S. custody since he was captured in Pakistan in March.

Saudi officials have offered a reward for Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, who is believed to have trained in Afghanistan before being dispatched by Mohammed to the Middle East last year. Jabarah, 23, is said to hold Kuwaiti and Canadian citizenship.

Envoy's Defense

Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, again appeared on U.S. television Thursday to defend his country's handling of warnings leading up to the attacks.

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