RIYADH (Reuters) – Islamist militants stormed four expatriate compounds in the eastern Saudi city of Khobar on Saturday, killing five foreigners and taking an unspecified number of people hostage, security sources said.
A statement purportedly from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda posted on Islamists Web sites claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States has vowed to de-stabilize the U.S.-allied monarchy and world’s leading oil exporter.
The attack, apparently targeting Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, came two days after a top al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia issued a battle plan for an urban guerrilla war in the kingdom, specifying steps militants need to take to succeed in a campaign to topple the Saudi royal family.
It was the third attack against foreigners in less than a month in the world’s leading oil exporter, birthplace of Islam and home to some of its most important sites.
The attack on the kingdom’s main oil producing region happened a week after Saudi Arabia gave a commitment to increase oil output by 10 percent in a bid to stabilize spiraling international oil prices and also came ahead of a crucial OPEC meeting in Beirut next week.
Earlier this month, militants killed five foreigners in an unprecedented attack on a petrochemical site in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea town of Yanbu. A German was also shot dead in a shopping district in eastern Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s top al Qaeda leader Abdulaziz al-Muqrin claimed responsibility for the Yanbu shooting in which militants dragged the corpse of one American through the streets.
He has also vowed deadlier attacks in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states. Saudi militants claimed a suicide bombing in April on a security forces’ headquarters.
Oil markets have been on edge over the possibility of a strike on oil facilities in the kingdom, the world’s biggest crude exporter, that would disrupt supplies.
Saudi security forces have arrested or gunned down at least eight of the country’s 26 most wanted militants, but their defiance of the crackdown has raised questions about security.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah has pledged to hunt down militants for “decades” if needed and urged mosque preachers to support security forces.
The oil-rich kingdom, a pivotal U.S. ally, has been battling a tide of Muslim militancy linked to al Qaeda, believed to be behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
A string of al Qaeda-linked suicide bombings in Riyadh last year killed 50 people, including nine Americans.
Anti-Western sentiment in the kingdom has also been fueled by images carried by Arab media of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners and Israeli tanks razing Palestinian homes.
Last month the U.S. Embassy strongly urged its citizens to leave Saudi Arabia.
Security sources said militants first opened fire at the Al-Khobar Petroleum Center building, believed to house offices of major Western oil companies, before storming into three compounds housing oil-services offices and residential homes of employees working there.
The militants, estimated at five, then went into the Rami and Oasis housing compounds, where the hostages were being held at the Oasis compound. Some employees working for the oil company Shell, Honeywell and General Electric lived in one of the compounds.
Police have besieged the area.
“This is clearly targeting the oil sector” said a senior Western executive in the capital, Riyadh.
“Gunmen are still on the loose. People are staying in their homes, keeping their heads down. Nobody can give a final figure on the deaths,” a Western diplomat told Reuters.
Witnesses said two cars with military markings drove into the Apicorp complex where witnesses saw people shoot dead a nine-year-old and an Egyptian expatriate.