Car bombers attack Saudi Arabia's oil processing facility

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Suicide bombers in explosives-laden cars attacked the world's largest oil processing facility yesterday, but were prevented from breaking through the gates when guards opened fire on them, causing the vehicles to explode, officials said.

It was the first attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia - and it targeted one of the kingdom's most important. The huge Abqaiq processing facility near the Gulf coast handles around two-thirds of the country's oil output.

The explosions killed at least two attackers and severely wounded two guards. For several hours afterward, security forces exchanged fire with other attackers while scouring the area.

The Saudi oil minister said the blast "did not affect operations" at the Abqaiq facility, denying an earlier report on Al-Arabiya television that the flow of oil was halted briefly after a pipeline was damaged.

The facility "continued to operate normally. Export operations continued in full," the minister, Ali Naimi, said in a statement.

Nevertheless, crude oil futures spiked more than $2 a barrel after the attack, which further rattled world markets nervous about supply disruptions in Nigeria and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Light sweet crude for April delivery soared to $62.83 a barrel, then eased back to $62.50, an increase of $1.96 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude futures for April jumped $1.81 to $62.35 on London's ICE Futures exchange.

Saudi Arabia has been waging a fierce three-year crackdown on al-Qaida militants, who launched a campaign in 2003 aimed at overthrowing the royal family with a string of attacks - mostly targeting foreigners. In May 2004, militants attacked oil company offices in two cities. There was no immediate word on who was behind yesterday's attack.

The attack occurred at about 3 pm, several hours after the weekly prayers on Friday, a day off for Saudis, though the facility was in operation.

The facility lies several miles from a residential area where several thousand expatriate workers - including Americans, Europeans and Arabs - live, but there were no reports of violence near the heavily secured residential complex.