RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Militants in the Saudi capital launched coordinated car bombings against the police ministry and a troop recruitment center and battled security forces in attacks that caused oil prices to jump and signaled that Muslim extremists are keeping up their fight despite the kingdom’s crackdown on al-Qaida.
Seven militants were killed in the gunbattle with police in a northern district of Riyadh, Al-Arabiya television reported. The clash broke out about the same time as the the two car bombings — a remote control blast near the Interior Ministry and a suicide attack on the recruitment center.
One bystander was killed in the ministry blast near the ministry, Saudi TV said.
While damage to the Interior Ministry was minor, it was a bold assault on the government body that leads the security forces at the center of the kingdom’s war on al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists. The attacks came two weeks after al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden (news – web sites) called on his followers to focus attacks on his homeland.
The attacks sparked a jump in oil prices in afternoon trading in New York, helping push the price of a barrel of light crude up nearly two dollars to $43.64.
The violence began with an explosion at about 8:35 p.m. in central Riyadh near the Interior Ministry, a massive modern high-rise located in an complex that includes a luxury hotel. Two militants detonated a car bomb by remote control in a traffic tunnel near the ministry, police said. A limousine driver was killed, Saudi TV said.
Shattered glass littered the ground near the ministry, and several damaged cars — including a blood-splattered taxi — sat outside.
A half hour later, a second explosion shook the city. Two suicide bombers tried to drive a troop recruitment center about five miles away, but they came under fire from police and set off their explosives prematurely. The two bombers were killed, but there were no other reports of casualties.
The gunbattle in northern Riyadh broke out when militants opened fire with small arms and threw grenades, police said. Militants later fled into a building that police surrounded as six armored cars sealed off the area.
An Interior Ministry official said a number of police were injured. Abdel Rahman al Sewilem, head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, told Saudi TV four to five people were injured. He did not say whether they were police, attackers or bystanders or provide any other details.
The explosions took place at night when few employees were at the ministry or the recruitment center. Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told Saudi television the number of victims was not large, particularly given the explosions took place in heavily populated areas, but gave no numbers.
Past militants attacks — including some claimed by al-Qaida, appeared designed to maximize casualties, but drew heavy criticism when many of the dead were Arab and Muslim. A nighttime attack focused on targets associated with Saudi security forces could have been meant to underline militants’ opposition to the government while avoiding killing civilians.
Extremists have carried out a number of attacks recently — but not on the scale of dramatic operations early this year and last year that killed dozens.
Early Wednesday, a suspected militant was killed in Riyadh after tossing a bomb and shooting at security agents, according to a security official. On Tuesday, another suspect and a bystander were killed in a shootout in the same Riyadh neighborhood, according to an Interior Ministry official. One suspect was captured in that attack.
But on Dec. 6, militants said to belong to al-Qaida’s branch in the kingdom attacked the U.S. consulate in Jiddah, killing nine people.
Ten days later, bin Laden issued his audiotape — his first message in years directed specifically at Saudis. He praised those who carried out the consulate raid and urged his followers to attack the kingdom’s oil installations to weaken both the West and the Saudi royal family.
Saudi forces have cracked down heavily on al-Qaida — killing and arresting a large number of its suspected top figures in the country — after the large attacks early in the year.
In May, gunmen attacked oil company compounds in Khobar, 250 miles northeast of Riyadh, and killed 22 people, 19 of them foreigners. Earlier the same month, attackers stormed the offices of an American company in Yanbu, 220 miles north of Jiddah, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All four attackers died in a shootout after a police chase in which they dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car.
On April 21, a suicide bomber hit a government building in Riyadh, killing five peole. In November 2003, a suicide bombing at a Riyadh housing compound killed 17 people, most of them Muslims working in Saudi Arabia.