U.S. Consulate Attacked in Saudi Arabia

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Islamic militants threw explosives at the gate of the heavily guarded U.S. consulate in Jiddah in a bold attack Monday, then forced their way into the building and held civilians at gunpoint, prompting a gunbattle. At least 12 people, including five local staff, were reported killed in the three-hour assault.

Saudi security officials said four of its forces died in the clash and the Interior Ministry said three of the five attackers were killed. The other two were injured and captured in the first militant assault since May. Five members of the consulate's non-American staff died, according to the U.S. Embassy.

One American was slightly injured, apparently while being evacuated, a State Department official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

President Bush said the attack showed "terrorists" are trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

"They want us to grow timid and weary in the face of their willingness to kill randomly, kill innocent people," Bush said at the White House after a meeting with interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer. "That's why these elections in Iraq are very important."

Bush also thanked Saudi Arabia for quelling the attack and said more would be learned about who was behind it.

A non-American employee of the consulate said staff was moved to a safe area inside.

"We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn't know what was going on," the employee, who asked that his name not be used, told The Associated Press by telephone. "They were heavy at times and not so heavy at other times."

The Saudi Interior Ministry statement did not mention hostages. But a Saudi official, speaking from Riyadh on the condition of anonymity, said numerous civilians inside the compound were confronted by the attackers and held at gunpoint. The official said a gunbattle quickly ensued when Saudi security officials became concerned the civilians were about to be injured.

In Riyadh, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said four of the five employees killed held administrative jobs and one was a private contract guard on the consulate's payroll. Four other embassy workers — all hired locally — were hospitalized, Kalin said. She said all American employees were safe and none had been taken hostage.

Kalin said it was unclear if any of the U.S. Marine guards inside the consulate were involved in the gunbattle.

"We have accounted for all Americans on the compound in Jiddah and none of them are being held hostage," Kalin said.

As a precaution, she said, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Dhahran were closed to the public through Tuesday, with only emergency services available for American citizens, according to a statement posted by the U.S. Embassy after the attack. It urged Americans living in Saudi Arabia to "exercise utmost security precautions."

Saudi security forces, including snipers, could be seen on the roofs of buildings around the consulate compound. Thick smoke rose from the compound and helicopters hovered overhead.

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 more attacks by the terror group. Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed al-Qaida, led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, for all major militant attacks in the kingdom since May 2003.

The statement by a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, said a "deviant bunch" — a reference to Islamic militants — threw explosives at the gate of the consulate, then entered. Saudi security forces engaged the attackers, "killing three aggressors, and two were captured after they were hit," the statement said.

"The situation was brought under control," the statement said. It gave no further details.

The Saudi official in Riyadh said the gunmen got to an area inside the initial security gate at the consulate compound, but outside a secondary gate that protects the consulate offices.

Earlier, a different Saudi official had said the attackers took several hostages, mostly Sudanese and Indian employees of the consulate. That official said Saudi security forces stormed the attackers when threats were made.

Area residents spoke of seeing Saudi forces enter the consulate, located inside a compound surrounded by walls at least 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire, shortly before the fierce gunbattle was heard inside. Soon after, the gunfire stopped.

Witnesses initially said they saw the attackers' car explode outside the consulate, located in the city's heart near the Red Sea coastline.

But Saudi security officials later clarified that the assailants shot at security guards at the consulate's gate, then set off an explosion — using either a car bomb or grenades — and then got into the compound.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Saudi officials have blamed al-Qaida operatives for the string of attacks that have hit the kingdom in the past two years.

On Islamic militant Web sites, contributors began hailing the attack even before it was over, with one person praising it as "destruction of a bastion of atheism."

"We were afraid about our brothers in the Arab peninsula, but this proves that they are well and sound, thank God," said the person who made the posting, referring to recent Saudi crackdowns on militants.

The consulate — like all U.S. diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia — has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year's series of bombings against targets housing foreigners. Guard posts are located on the corners of the compound and a road open to civilian traffic runs along part of the wall.

"The magnitude of this assault on the consulate has taken all Jiddah residents by surprise," said Khaled al-Maeena, the editor of Arab News located in Jiddah who saw the smoke rising from the compound.

The series of attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia started in 2003, when car bombs targeted three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine suicide bombers. Later that year, a suicide car bomb killed 17 people and wounded 122 at a compound for foreign workers in Riyadh.

The Saudi government then cracked down hard, arresting and killing many key militants, and quieting the attacks somewhat.

In May, however, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours.

In another attack that month, militants stormed offices of Houston-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. in Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All four attackers in Yanbu died in a shootout after an hour-long police chase in which they dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car.

In June, militants in Riyadh kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr., an engineer for a U.S. defense company.

About 9,000 Americans live in the Jiddah consular district, which encompasses western Saudi Arabia from Yemen to Jordan. The population of Jiddah is estimated at more than 2 million.