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U.S.: Washington Reduces Diplomatic Presence In Saudi Arabia Amidst Fears Of Terrorist Attacks

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United States has ordered a reduction in its diplomatic presence in Saudi Arabia as fears remain that the death toll from Monday's suicide bombings at three foreign compounds in Riyadh might rise well above the revised official figure of 25 released today by local authorities.

Prague, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Washington says nonessential diplomats and relatives of its embassy and consulate personnel in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran will be directed to leave Saudi Arabia for fear of new terrorist attacks targeting U.S. interests.

At least seven American citizens were killed on 12 May in a series of suicide car bombings that partially destroyed three residential compounds for expatriate workers in eastern Riyadh. Unconfirmed reports say a fourth bomb attack was carried out against the headquarters of a U.S.-Saudi company that apparently caused no casualties.

In a statement released today, the Saudi Interior Ministry put the number of people killed at 25, up from a previous death toll of 20. Nine suspected terrorists were also killed. Casualties among the victims include seven Saudis and at least 10 non-U.S. foreign citizens -- two Jordanians, three Filipinos, one Lebanese, one Swiss, one Briton, one Irishman, and one Australian.

One unidentified body was found at the site of one of the attacks, which also left nearly 200 people wounded.

U.S. State Department officials who yesterday accompanied Secretary of State Colin Powell on a planned visit to Riyadh said the final death toll could be between 50 and 90, since many people remained unaccounted for. London claims at least two Britons are still missing, while Jordan says five of its nationals were killed in the blasts.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, U.S. and Saudi officials say they bear the fingerprints of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, the group blamed for the 11 September suicide plane attacks on America.

Addressing reporters in Missouri yesterday, President George W. Bush acknowledged that he could not say "for certain" that the attacks are the work of Al-Qaeda, but said he "wouldn't be surprised" if they were. Bush also vowed a relentless campaign to strike back against the perpetrators and sponsors of the latest bombings.

"The despicable acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate. And the United States will find the killers, and they will learn the meaning of American justice," he said.

In Riyadh, the Al-Saud ruling family also condemned the attacks. In a strongly worded statement read on state-run television, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz described the bombers and the masterminds behind the attacks as criminals doomed to "hellfire" and "devoid of any Islamic or human values." The kingdom's de facto ruler also vowed to strike those responsible for the blasts "so severely that they will not be able to rise again."

Despite generally good bilateral relations, U.S. officials have criticized Saudi rulers for their failure to curb terrorism and for the alleged financial support offered by members of the ruling family to radical Muslim groups. Until recently Saudi authorities have persistently denied the charges, insisting that organizations such as Al-Qaeda could not, and did not, operate in the kingdom.

Last week, however, Saudi security forces took the unprecedented step of publishing the names and pictures of 19 alleged terrorists -- including al least three Al-Qaeda operatives -- suspected of running a large weapons cache uncovered in eastern Riyadh. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz yesterday suggested the bombings were linked to this weapons case, rather than to Powell's visit to the kingdom.

U.S. officials have also criticized Saudi authorities in the past for their alleged lack of cooperation in investigating similar terrorist attacks, such as the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers in Dhahran, which left 19 American soldiers dead.

This time, Riyadh has reportedly pledged to fully cooperate with Washington.

FBI Director Robert Mueller yesterday said a team of U.S. investigators would be dispatched shortly to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to help local security forces identify the perpetrators of the attacks and track down their sponsors.

While touring the site of one of the bombings yesterday, Powell said the suicide raids had been carefully planned, indicating they could be the work of a powerful terrorist organization.

"This was a well-planned terrorist attack," he said. "Obviously, the facility had been cased, as had the others. They were very well executed, and it shows the nature of the enemy we are working against."

While Saudi authorities have so far released very few details of the attacks, U.S. officials traveling with Powell have shed some light on the bombings.

These officials say it took "30 seconds to one minute" for the suicide bombers to perform the attacks, which all followed a similar pattern.

It seems the overnight raids were led by advance parties driving American cars in order not to arouse suspicion.

After neutralizing the security guards posted at the entrance of the compounds, these parties opened the metal gates and barriers blocking access to the residential areas, letting through U.S.-made trucks each loaded with an estimated 200 kilograms of explosives of the RDX or Semtex type. The terrorists then posted the trucks at carefully selected spots where the blasts would be the most lethal.

At one site, however, the truck bomb exploded at the gate of the compound, thus inflicting less damage.

At least two security guards were killed in the raids, and unconfirmed reports indicate Saudi security forces exchanged fire with a group of gunmen leaving the site of one of the attacks.

U.S. officials believe the way the operations were carried out indicate the raiders knew the layout of the compounds and may have had accomplices within the Saudi security forces. What the attackers did not know, however, is that up to 50 would-be targets were out in the desert that night on a training exercise with the Saudi military.

One of the compounds hit is run by Vinnell Corporation, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Northrop Grumman group. Vinnell has been operating in Saudi Arabia for the past 29 years, training the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a separate military force believed to be under the direct command of Crown Prince Abdullah.

In a statement posted on its website, Northrop Grumman says nine Vinnell employees -- seven Americans and two Filipinos -- were killed in the suicide attacks.

The motives for the bombings remains unclear.

While some analysts say the bombings were most likely targeting U.S. or other foreign interests in retaliation for the war on Iraq, others claim their real target was the Saudi government and its attempts at reforms. As for the Kuwait-based "Al Qabas" daily, it believes Al-Qaeda wanted to send a signal "that its operations will not stop even with the departure of U.S. forces from the [Saudi] kingdom" -- a longtime demand of bin Laden and his associates.

Although the U.S. last month announced it would by the end of the summer substantially reduce its military presence in Saudi Arabia, experts believe ongoing military cooperation between Washington and Riyadh is unlikely to abate in the near future.

In Washington, some Democratic senators yesterday criticized Bush's recent foreign policy steps, saying the military campaign against Iraq has diverted focus and resources from the war on international terrorism.

But Bush yesterday defended his stance, saying the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be considered a significant step in the global antiterrorism fight.

Yet, he also acknowledged that only "one-half" of Al-Qaeda has been destroyed so far and that "more work" remains to be done to curb terrorism.

Echoing Bush's comments, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef today reiterated that he could not rule out that his country might witness other terrorist attacks in the near future.