Car bomb hits Saudi police target; blasts also take heavy toll in Iraq

Posted in Terrorism | 22-Apr-04 | Author: Terence Neilan| Source: International Herald Tribune

An explosion set off by a suicide car bomber ripped through the headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s national police force in Riyadh on Wednesday, killing at least four people, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement.

It was the first major militant attack on a government target in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, which is battling a tide of Islamist extremism linked to Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s network.

The U.S. government had recently warned of a possible attack in the kingdom, and the bombing coincided with a visit to Riyadh by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

There were conflicting reports of casualties. The most recent accounting, offered by the Interior Ministry in a statement read on state television, was four dead and 148 wounded.

‘‘The number of dead is four, two of them security men, and one civil servant and an 11-year-old Syrian girl,’’ the statement said, according to Reuters.

Earlier, news agencies and a local English-language newspaper, The Saudi Gazette, citing witnesses and hospital officials, reported that at least nine people had died. Estimates of the number of wounded varied from 60 to 125.

Reports also differed on how many cars were used. An earlier ministry statement said the attackers had tried to drive one vehicle into the building, which also housed the headquarters of Riyadh’s traffic department. The statement said the driver exploded the car 100 feet away from the gate about 2 p.m. local time, when workers would have been leaving for the weekend.

Initially, a police official told The Associated Press that two cars exploded about 50 feet from the building. The state-run Saudi Press Agency had quoted an unidentified Interior Ministry official as saying that ‘‘one of the cars’’ was stopped near the building and that the driver then set off the explosion. But the official did not say what happened to any other car involved.

Crown Prince Abdullah and the interior minister, Prince Nayef, visited the wounded, news agencies reported, with Prince Nayef pledging that the ‘‘hand of justice’’ will punish the attackers, Reuters said. ‘‘It pains us that these people call themselves Muslims and citizens of this nation,’’ Prince Nayef was quoted as saying.

The force of the explosion, in the Murabaa district of the capital, was felt by residents more than three miles away, The Gazette said.

About 20 ambulances went to the scene, and residents said they saw many bodies being loaded into them. On Saudi television, two helicopters were shown circling over the scene.

Smoke billowed from damaged buildings in the area, which also houses the Riyadh television offices, Reuters said.

Last year, Al Qaeda was accused of being behind suicide bombings at foreign residential compounds in Riyadh in May and November that killed about 50 people, including 8 Americans.

On April 12, a shootout in Riyadh left one suspected militant and one policeman dead. The next day, militants opened fire at a checkpoint in Riyadh, killing four police officers. Eight people have been arrested in connection with the shootouts.

Last week, Washington ordered unessential diplomats out of Saudi Arabia and warned Americans that they should leave, citing fresh signals of possible attacks on American and other Western interests.

The attack on Wednesday happened on the second day of a four-day international conference on terrorism, which opened in Riyadh with a call for peace and tolerance, The Gazette reported on Tuesday.

‘‘Muslims meeting here were shocked to the core to see terrorist activities coinciding with the conference on terror,’’ Abdullah al-Hamoud, chairman of the information center of the conference, said in a statement obtained by the newspaper.

On Monday, The Gazette said, Crown Prince Abdullah told his cabinet that ‘‘this clique of terrorists, which seeks to undermine the stability of the country can only increase the cohesion and unity of Saudis,’’ adding that every citizen must be considered a member of the security services.

The conference, The Gazette reported, is intended to uncover the roots of terrorism, violence and extremism, outlining the moderation and tolerance of Islam and rebutting what the Saudis say are accusations circulated by foreign news media against the kingdom.