Saudis deny deal to let militants escape

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Jun-04 | Author: Andrew Gumbel| Source: The Independent

Saudi authorities, facing mounting anger over the escape of three suspected al-Qa'ida militants who participated in the bloody hostage-taking at an oil company compound, set up roadblocks across the kingdom yesterday and vowed to catch the fugitives before they could strike again.

The Saudis denied allegations made by eyewitnesses to the carnage that the three men were allowed to leave in a secret deal with security forces who had surrounded the residential compound in the Gulf city of Khobar. In the official version, the three used some of their surviving hostages as human shields to get away as the commandos pounced at dawn on Sunday.

According to at least one eyewitness, however, the men were seen in Dammam, six miles north of Khobar, two and a half hours before the commandos moved into the Oasis compound and released more than 200 people, including dozens of hostages who were held during the 25-hour siege.

An employee at the compound said he had been told by the hostages that the three men promised not to harm the 41 people they were holding at gunpoint if they were allowed to escape. In his account, the security forces were not initially interested in a deal but changed their minds after nine hostages were killed. Varying accounts said the hostages were shot or had their throats cut. "There was a kind of a deal reached to let the hostages go free," the employee told the Reuters news agency.

Among those denying this allegation yesterday was the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who told the BBC there had been no collusion between the attackers and security forces. He echoed an official statement by King Fahd describing the attacks as "criminal acts by deviants" that would only strengthen Saudi resolve to "fight terrorism".

The exact sequence of events remained mired in deep confusion yesterday. Saudi officials have alluded to just four gunmen - the three who escaped and their leader, who was said to have been wounded and captured as the commandos took the compound. Eyewitnesses inside the compound have suggested, however, that more than four people were involved.

In Dammam, a man called Sultan al-Oteibi told Agence France-Presse that the suspected al-Qa'ida fugitives stole his car at about 3am, two and a half hours before the compound siege came to an end. "Three armed men dressed in black sports gear waved guns and took my car in Dammam, where they abandoned a pick-up truck," he said.

Further accounts in Saudi newspapers and on Islamist websites suggested there might have been a mini-siege in Dammam after the three men barricaded themselves into a building in the centre of town. The upshot was that the men escaped again.

Eyewitness testimony, meanwhile, built up a more detailed picture of the carnage, which began when gunmen in military clothing opened fire on the Al-Khobar Petroleum Centre building, then stormed through offices, homes and a hotel where the hostages were held. At the outset, Michael Hamilton, a 62-year-old British oil executive, was shot in his car at the gates of the Arab Petroleum Investments Corp and his body dragged along the street before being dumped near a bridge.

In all, 22 people were killed - the youngest a 10-year-old Egyptian boy - and about 25 wounded. The dead included an American, an Italian, a South African, a Swede, eight Indians, two Sri Lankans, three Filipinos and three Saudis.

The Oasis compound employee described the scene. "There were pools of blood; blood is everywhere," he said.

Residents said the gunmen ordered them to reveal their religion and picked Christians as hostages, not Muslims. One Jordanian Christian, Nizar Hajazeen, told Reuters that he believed he was spared because he lied about his religion.

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