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Saudi Gunmen Still Missing

The inability to find three of the suspected militants who killed 22 is a growing source of embarrassment for the Riyadh government.

June 01, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Authorities searched without success Monday for any sign of the missing suspected Islamic gunmen who terrorized oil company offices and housing compounds in this city over the weekend. Three of the assailants disappeared in a stolen car Sunday morning after killing 22 people, and have managed to evade a nationwide manhunt.

Investigators spent Monday sifting through blood-stained rooms in a luxury resort compound where gunmen had taken about 50 hostages, many of them foreigners, and holed up for 25 hours while Saudi forces swarmed outside. Checkpoints, sandbags and soldiers had risen on the smooth highways stretching through the wastes of desert.

So far, the fugitives remain elusive, and a source of growing embarrassment for the kingdom. Officials have spent the past days repeatedly insisting that they're in control of security and capable of protecting their oil facilities. But they've also had to acknowledge that three gun-toting men managed to slip through the grip of hundreds of Saudi commandos and vanish seamlessly into a spare landscape of strip malls and coastal desert plains.

The weekend shooting rampage and hostage standoff was the second attack in less than a month on the kingdom's oil interests. The global fallout won't become clear until financial markets reopen today. But here in Khobar, fear and doubt are already running deep.

"The big question around town," said one Western diplomat who requested anonymity, "is how did these guys escape?"

Weary compound residents gathered in a hotel lobby in downtown Khobar to pore over newspaper accounts and swap tales of trauma Monday night. Many of them had more questions than answers: It remains unclear how the men escaped. The government said they used hostages as human shields, but many compound residents were incredulous.

Asked whether he understood how the gunmen managed to get away, a Jordanian investment manager who gave his name as Abu Yasser glanced over both shoulders, then mouthed an exaggerated and silent "no."

"According to the news, they took some hostages" with them to make their escape, said Yasser, who has been in Saudi Arabia for four decades and lives in a villa in the Oasis compound. "But according to our compound, no."

"There are many contradictions. You can't trust it," said Nicolais Botolus, a bleary-eyed Parisian who plopped into an armchair in a hotel lobby, a French-language copy of "Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There)" and mobile telephone in hand. "So how can we know whether we are safe here?"

Botolus, a computer software specialist, has been working for Saudi Aramco for a year. He had just left his hotel in the Oasis compound Saturday morning when he heard the first gunfire. He pressed on to work and hasn't been back since: Banned from returning to their homes, Oasis residents have taken up residence in hotels and private houses.

In the nearly deserted lobby, the Oasis survivors gathered to smoke cigars, sip soft drinks and swap stories. But Botolus sat off to one side, taking frantic calls from friends and family in France. They wanted him to come home.

Like others here, Botolus was leery about the shifting rumors and stories. He heard there were checkpoints "everywhere," but when he made his way around downtown and to his office at Aramco, he didn't encounter a single traffic stop.

"Now it looks like nobody knows where they were able to go," Botolus said of the gunmen. "I don't know what to think."

Security forces here reportedly arrested a Muslim preacher from a small Khobar mosque Monday on suspicion of having been in contact with the militants. Authorities also have custody of Nimir Bigami, believed to be the ringleader of the weekend attacks. Bigami was reportedly wounded so badly in the shootout that his companions left him for dead, and it wasn't clear whether he had been able to answer questions.

This attack was one of the most scarring in a long year of violence, and the kingdom is still reeling. Saudi Arabia's top religious authority, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, assailed the attackers as "enemies' puppets."

The government also released a brief statement from King Fahd, who has ceded de facto rule to Crown Prince Abdullah due to failing health. "These criminal acts by deviants will only strengthen our resolve to fight terror," the king said.

But some Americans are beginning to pack their bags, said businesswoman Laura Collins. It's been 10 years since Collins, an American, converted to Islam and moved to the kingdom with her Saudi husband. Now she lightly refers to herself as "stuck." Her friends are beginning to leave, she said, "with or without their husbands."

"It's just so deliberate, just so point-blank and horrible," she said. "With a bomb, it's far away. Now it's cutting throats and point-blank shots. It's very frightening."

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