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U.S. On Guard In Saudi Arabia

Smoke rises following an explosion in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 6, 2004.
AP
The U.S. State Department is issuing a new warning about Saudi Arabia, saying there could be more terror attacks there in the coming days.

"Our operating assumption is that there are still terrorist elements active in the kingdom, targeting U.S. citizens and facilities, as well as other commercial and civilian establishments," department spokesman Adam Ereli said. "Therefore, maximum alertness and caution and prudence is called for."

New travel warnings to discourage U.S. citizens from going there are expected to be issued. But, in the meantime, the U.S. consulate in Jiddah will be reopened soon, and the embassy in Riyadh was preparing to reopen as well.

Lying in hospital beds, wounded U.S. consulate workers on Tuesday provided new details about an attack that killed nine, injured at least 10 and showed America's continued vulnerability to terrorist groups capable of conducting sophisticated surveillance, even on the most heavily guarded sites.

The militants "clearly understood how cars entered the compound, and they were conducting surveillance," U.S. Ambassador James C. Oberwetter said Tuesday.

Militants stormed into the compound's inner courtyard, firing their guns from behind trees, bursting into offices and shouting: "Where are the Americans? Where are the Americans?"

Oberwetter contended security measures had largely worked because the attackers' car could not get past the consulate gate, forcing them to enter the grounds on foot. The attackers also never made it to the main consulate buildings, where most Americans worked.

Still, as Oberwetter offered condolences to the families of five slain consulate workers, he said, "The events of yesterday show the need for improvement. We will examine what additional steps need to be taken."

The U.S. military ordered a Marine Corps antiterrorism security team to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday to assist in security at the consulate, defense officials said, on the condition of anonymity. These teams typically have 50 Marines and are experts in providing security and conducting raids in urban areas.

In Jiddah, they will reinforce defenses at the U.S. consulate that were breached by attackers Monday.

One day after Islamic militants shot their way into the compound at Jiddah, the circumstances remained unclear, including whether foreign nationals had been held hostage, spokesman Adam Ereli said.

"Embassy personnel have interviewed all the foreign service nationals who were involved in the attack, some have said they were taken hostage and used as human shields," he said.

Saudi officials blamed the attack on a "deviant" group — the government's way of identifying al Qaeda extremists it holds responsible for a string of terror strikes over the past two years.

The State Department official expressed concern that "defensive measures the State Department has in place all over the world ... proved vulnerable." Diplomatic security agents are being rushed to Saudi Arabia, reports Fenton.

None of the three identified by name — Fayez bin Awad al-Juhaini, Eid bin Dakhil Allah al-Juhaini and Hassan bin Hamid al-Hazimi — appear on the kingdom's list of 26 most wanted militants. Saudi officials did not say whether the al-Juhainis were related, or provide details about them. Four of the five attackers died.

The five slain consulate employees were from Yemen, Sudan, the Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The director of King Fahd Hospital said a total of 10 wounded were brought there, and eight remained Tuesday.

One of the wounded consulate employees, Salah Abdel Qawi Alyafiee of Yemen, said the militants first stormed into the consulate courtyard, then held people as human shields as Saudi forces rushed in and engaged in a fierce gun battle.

"Each one of the terrorists took a group of us and they started shooting at the [Saudi] guards," he said. "And thanks to God, the Saudis did not shoot at random. They aimed at the terrorists."

Alyafiee, who works as a dispatcher at the consulate, said he kneeled down as the firing began, and then was shot.

"I don't know whose bullet hit me," he said. "I was on the floor and my face was to the floor."

He said the attackers, fellow Muslims, shouted "God is great," as they rushed in. "These people are lost," he said sorrowfully, lying in his hospital bed with his left arm in a thick white cast. "They don't know anything about their religion."

Other wounded employees said the attackers burst into a guardhouse looking for Americans after first entering the courtyard.

"They shot our door and they went into our office," said Abbel Gaber, a Sri Lankan man who had been hired by a local guard company. "They asked us, 'Where are the Americans?' We said, 'We don't have any Americans."'

The attackers then told him and others, "to put up our hands and say, 'Allahu Akbar' and 'Allahu Akbar,"' he said.

The attackers stayed inside the office, shooting occasionally until Saudi forces arrived and a bigger shootout began, Gaber said. He was hit from behind and fell down, waking later to see two dead men nearby.

Journalists were not allowed inside the compound, located in the heart of the Red Sea port city and surrounded by 10-foot-high walls, but Oberwetter said it would open for business in a few days. Saudi troops could be seen inside the compound, on rooftops and on nearby streets.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said requests have been made to Washington for a Wednesday reopening of the embassy in Riyadh and consular office in the eastern city of Dhahran, which had been closed to the public as a precaution.

Oberwetter thanked Saudi forces for "freeing the compound" and said the attackers clearly knew some details of the compound's security.

Their car attempted to enter the compound by slowly following a consular car in a far lane, the ambassador said. But a road-surface barrier rose immediately after the consular car and blocked the attackers' car, he said.

The assailants then got out of the car and "began to engage local Saudi staff in a great firefight at the front gate, and were able to access the compound."

In general, American diplomatic facilities like the one in Jiddah employ a layered defense against terrorist attacks, with foreign guards on the outside and American security personnel including U.S. Marines inside.

U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide rely almost exclusively on host-nation soldiers and police or private security guards to guard their outer walls. This keeps armed Americans off overseas streets — their presence would be tantamount to foreign soldiers patrolling Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.

Attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia started in 2003, when car bombs hit three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh. Since then, the government has cracked down on Islamic militant cells and charities suspected of funneling money to terrorists.

Though numerous suspected militants in Saudi Arabia have been killed or arrested, Monday's attack — the first of its kind since May — showed the problem hadn't been defeated.

The Saudi government has condemned the attack and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was reported to have called Oberwetter afterward.

"The kingdom is determined to root out terrorism and preserve its security and stability," the state-guided newspaper Okaz quoted Saud as telling the ambassador.