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Saudi Arabia: Suicide Blasts Target U.S., Other Foreigners Ahead Of Powell's Visit

A series of suspected suicide car bombs rocked the Saudi capital Riyadh, last night, killing or wounding both Arabs and Western nationals. At least seven Americans were killed, but citizens from many other countries are among the casualties, including Saudis and Jordanians. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports on the blasts, which appear to be the worst such attack since the 1996 suicide car-bomb attack in Dhahran.

Prague, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The deadly blasts occurred just hours before a planned visit to Riyadh by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the latest leg of his Middle East peace mission.

Addressing reporters today just before leaving Jordan for the Saudi capital, Powell said he did not know who was responsible for the overnight attacks but said everything suggests the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is behind them.

Powell said the attacks have "the earmarks of Al-Qaeda, and I think it is just part of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations' willingness to kill innocent people in order to push forward a criminal agenda."

Defense analysts believe the methods reportedly chosen for the attacks -- cars packed with explosives and detonated by suicide bombers -- and the fact they were carried out in Saudi Arabia, home to the world's most revered Sunni shrines, testifies to the involvement of Al-Qaeda.

The circumstances of last night's bombings remain unclear. Saudi security forces have cordoned off the sites of the attacks and revealed only sketchy details.

Eyewitnesses say a series of huge explosions rocked the Saudi capital at approximately 2330 yesterday, heavily damaging three residential compounds in the eastern Gharnata, Ishbiliya, and Cordoba neighborhoods. Those compounds mainly house expatriate workers.

Reports that a fourth blast damaged the headquarters of a joint Saudi-U.S. company known as Siyanco two hours later could not be immediately confirmed.

Robert W. Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, told the BBC television channel there were more than 40 reported injured in various hospitals and unconfirmed reports of several people killed.

A Saudi Interior Ministry statement read on national television later said 20 people were killed and nearly 200 others wounded in the blasts. The statement also said an additional nine bodies believed to be those of the suicide bombers were found at the sites of the attacks.

But Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of the Riyadh-based "Al Watan" (Fatherland) newspaper, told the BBC the blasts killed 25 people, including five Saudis, and injured up to 100 others. Upon his arrival in Riyadh today, Powell said up to 10 U.S. citizens might have been killed.

Both U.S. and Saudi officials say many residents remain unaccounted for. There are fears the death toll might grow as rescuers search through the rubble.

Western defense contractors and military advisers to Saudi Arabia's national guard were apparently the targets of the attacks.

U.S. officials in Riyadh believe most people killed or injured in the blasts are American, although Saudi authorities have not yet released any information regarding their identities.

Agence France Presse reports that a son of Riyadh Deputy Governor Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz was among the victims.

Australia said one of its nationals was killed and another one wounded, while Japan confirmed three of its citizens were slightly injured in the explosions. Three Italian nationals and one Spaniard also were reported wounded. In Manila, the government said two Filipinos were killed and several others were injured.

At one residential compound, the blast partially or completely destroyed several homes and apartment buildings. Another site, a multistory apartment block designed for single male tenants, was seriously hit.

U.S. Ambassador Jordan said the third compound was less damaged because the car bomb exploded at the gate of the heavily guarded residential complex.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television channel said Saudi security guards exchanged fire with a group of armed men who were leaving the site of one of the attacks. Whether the suspected gunmen managed to escape remains unclear.

The latest blasts are a serious blow to the Saudi authorities and to the U.S. administration, which has vowed to eradicate terrorism in the region.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal today voiced Riyadh's determination to strike back against the perpetrators of the attacks.

"[These incidents] should increase our efforts," he said. They "should make us not hesitate to take whatever measures are needed to oppose these people who know only hate, only killing, and for no purpose whatsoever."

Last week, the Saudi security forces raided a vast arms cache near the site of one of the attacks, seizing nearly 400 kilograms of explosives and dozens of hand grenades. An estimated 19 suspected terrorists, including two non-Saudis, managed to slip through the police net.

In comments printed in today's edition of "Al Watan," Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said the bombings were linked to last week's security crackdown rather than to Powell's visit to Riyadh.

Prince Nayef said he does not rule out the possibility of more terrorist attacks in the future.

The Riyadh bombings were the most serious attacks against Western targets in Saudi Arabia in seven years.

In 1996, a truck bomb exploded at a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran, killing 19 American soldiers and wounding 400 people. The previous year, five U.S. and two Indian nationals were killed in a car bomb attack in the Saudi capital.

Iran was initially blamed for the 1996 attack, but it is now believed to have been the work of Al-Qaeda and its leader, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden tops the U.S.'s most-wanted terrorist list, and his whereabouts remain unknown. He has persistently denounced the use of Saudi soil by U.S. troops.

Last month, Washington announced that by the end of the summer it would significantly reduce its military presence in Saudi Arabia from an estimated level of 10,000 reached during the recent war against neighboring Iraq.

The U.S. administration believes that, with the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime and the end of air patrols over Iraq's southern no-fly zone, it no longer needs a large military presence in Saudi Arabia. It also hopes troop reductions in that country, where anti-U.S. sentiments are running high, may eventually contribute to fostering domestic reforms and, therefore, positively impact the overall situation in the Middle and Near East regions.

Powell, who arrived in Riyadh today to seek the ruling Al-Saud family's help in harnessing anti-Israeli radical Muslim groups, said the latest bombings would not alter U.S. determination to curb terrorism and seek a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis.

He also dismissed speculation, fuelled by Israel's lukewarm reaction to the recent publication of a "road map" peace plan for the Middle East, that Washington might modify the document to satisfy the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Israel knows that the road map lays out the steps that have to be taken. [The Israelis] have some comments on the road map, and we will listen to their comments. But we do not plan to rewrite or renegotiate the road map."

In Cairo yesterday, Powell tried to overcome Arab skepticism over Israel's intentions regarding the peace plan. Unlike Mahmoud Abbas, the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Sharon has so far refused to formally accept the plan.

Jordan, to which Powell paid a short visit yesterday on his way to Saudi Arabia, was the first Arab country to condemn the Riyadh bombings. Speaking at a joint press conference with his U.S. counterpart, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said the deadly incidents would strengthen Amman's resolve to work with Washington in finding a solution to all the problems in the Middle East.

Other countries, including China and Russia, also condemned the bombings.