KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Saudi forces began an assault on Sunday on suspected al Qaeda militants holding 50 foreign hostages after killing 16 people in a second major attack in a month aimed at destabilizing Saudi Arabia.
Witnesses heard firing between the Saudi forces and the militants, but it was unclear whether the raid was a full-scale storming to end the standoff in the eastern city of Khobar, at the heart of the oil industry in the world’s biggest exporter.
“The forces have begun the raid on the militants,” one security source said. Security officials at the scene said the Saudis were likely to carry out the operation in several stages.
In Saturday’s attack, which sparked fears of higher fuel prices, the militants sprayed gunfire at Western oil firms. Nine Saudis and seven foreigners, including two Westerners, were killed before the militants holed up in a housing complex.
The sources said the militants, armed with grenades and machineguns, had rigged a building in the luxury compound with explosives and were holding their hostages on the sixth floor.
AMERICANS SAID TO BE AMONG HOSTAGES
A large number of Westerners were among the hostages, including Americans, the security sources said.
Oil markets have been on edge over the possibility of a militant strike disrupting oil supplies, and the situation in Saudi Arabia has already helped push prices to $40 a barrel.
“This is close to the nerve center of the Saudi oil industry,” said analyst Yasser Elguindi, of Medley Global Advisers in New York. “It could have a devastating impact on the oil market when we reopen (on Tuesday).”
An American, a Briton, an Egyptian, two Filipinos, an Indian and a Pakistani were killed in the attack, along with two Saudis and seven security force members, the security sources said.
A Saudi policeman said the militants, reported to be wearing military uniforms, were using the hostages as human shields and officials were trying to negotiate.
A statement purportedly from Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network was posted on Islamist Internet sites claiming responsibility for the attack, the third on foreigners in less than a month in the birthplace of Islam.
Witnesses said militants tied the body of the Briton, one of three employees of Arab oil firm Apicorp killed, to a car and dragged it two km (1.2 miles) before dumping it near a bridge.
Earlier this month the body of an American was dragged through the streets when militants killed five foreigners in an attack on a petrochemical site in the Red Sea town of Yanbu.
AL QAEDA VOW
Al Qaeda has vowed to destabilize the country. In 1996, the then little known group chose Khobar to mount one of its first major attacks, killing 19 U.S. soldiers at a compound.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, vowed to crush the militants.
“(The militants) want to harm the economy and foreigners so that they no longer come here,” he said. “We will continue to chase this deviant group until we eradicate them.”
Saturday’s attack prompted the U.S. embassy to reiterate a call last month for its citizens to leave Saudi Arabia. Britain condemned the attack and repeated a warning to its citizens to avoid all but essential travel to the kingdom.
Saudi state television showed footage of a man with Western features, slumped in his car, apparently shot dead. It also showed a charred car and a third blood-spattered vehicle.
The attackers opened fire at the Al-Khobar Petroleum Center building, believed to house offices of major Western oil firms, before storming into compounds containing oil services offices and homes of employees, the security sources said.
Witnesses said the attackers drove cars with military markings into the Apicorp complex and opened fire. An Egyptian boy was killed when a school bus came under fire.
LEBANESE HOSTAGES RELEASED
They also entered the Rami and Oasis compounds, where they took hostages. Five Lebanese were later released.
Employees of Shell, Honeywell and General Electric lived in one of the compounds. The Oasis residence has housed executives from leading oil firms Royal Dutch/Shell, Total and LUKOIL.
The attack occurred two days after a top al Qaeda leader, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, issued plans for urban guerrilla warfare in the kingdom designed to topple the royal family.