JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Militants lobbing explosives forced their way into the heavily guarded U.S. consulate in Jiddah yesterday before Saudi security forces stormed the compound and fought a gun battle to end a four-hour standoff. Eight people, none American, were killed.
The bold assault, the worst in the kingdom since May, demonstrated that Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on al-Qaida is still far from successful in the native land of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Saudi officials blamed a “deviant” group — the government’s way of identifying al-Qaida extremists it holds responsible for a string of terror strikes over the past two years.
President Bush said the attack showed “terrorists are still on the move,” trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The attack came a week after the deputy leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, warned in a videotape that Washington must change its policies or face further attacks by the terror group.
Five consulate employees were killed, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Riyadh. Three of the five attackers also died in the shootout, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. One American was slightly injured.
Saudi security officials initially said four Saudi officers also died in the clash, but Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki later told The Associated Press no officers were killed. He said one was seriously injured.
The two other attackers were captured wounded, the Interior Ministry said.
The attack prompted the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to urge thousands of Americans in the country — many of whom already live under extraordinarily tight security — to “exercise utmost security precautions.”
Consulate employees rushed to a safe area inside the compound after the attack began, a State Department official said. There were conflicting reports about hostages, but the official said no Americans were held captive.
“We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn’t know what was going on,” said a consulate employee who rushed to the safe area and later spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity. “They were heavy at times and not so heavy at other times.”
The attacks, immediately praised on militant Islamic web sites, showed that extremists in Saudi Arabia are still capable of carrying out sophisticated strikes despite the government crackdown.