Dozens killed in Riyadh suicide bombings

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The Independent Online

Dozens of people were killed in a series of co-ordinated suicide bomb attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia hours before the US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the country today.

Dozens of people were killed in a series of co-ordinated suicide bomb attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia hours before the US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the country today.

Arriving in Riyadh, Mr Powell said the bombings bore the hallmarks of the al-Qa'ida terrorist group.

An e-mail received by an Arabic magazine, apparently from al-Qa'ida, claimed responsibility for the bombings.

At least 29 people died in the attacks, including seven Americans and nine suicide bombers. Officials said overall casualties appeared to be in the hundreds and that several members of the Saudi national guard perished in the attacks. British, German, French, Australian and other Arab citizens were among the casualties.

An official at the British Embassy in Riyadh said: "We believe there are a small number of British nationals who have been injured, not seriously."

The Foreign Office today warned British nationals against all but essential travel to Saudi Arabia. In a statement, it said there remained a "high threat" of further strikes and warned of the possibility of chemical and biological attacks.

The Foreign Office has also authorised the voluntary departure of non–essential members of its staff based in Saudi.

"We advise British nationals against all but essential travel to Saudi Arabia," it said.

"If you choose to travel to, or remain in, Saudi Arabia you should take all necessary steps to protect your safety and should make sure you have confidence in your security arrangements.

"Following three suicide bomb attacks in Riyadh on May 12, there remains a high threat of further large or small–scale attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia. Terrorist attacks could involve the use of chemical and biological materials.

In the co-ordinated attacks, car bombs were exploded at three residential compounds housing westerners in the capital Riyadh. In one, a car was crashed through the compound gates and exploded near a block of apartments, while at another gunmen in a car loaded with explosives shot their way into a compound.

In a fourth attack, early today, a car bomb rocked the headquarters of the Saudi Maintenance Company, a joint US-Saudi company also known as Siyanco.

Last week, a senior Saudi security official said suspected terrorists were receiving orders directly from bin Laden and had been planning attacks in Saudi Arabia targeting the royal family as well as American and British interests.

Saudi security forces seized a large cache of weapons and explosives in Riyadh as they were searching for a number of suspected terrorists, an official said. The cache was found close to the scene of the Riyadhh bombings.

The official said at least 19 men – including 17 Saudis, an Iraqi holding both Kuwaiti and Canadian citizenship and a Yemeni – were being sought in connection with the plots.

A Briton in one compound spoke of widespread damage with homes closest to one of the four blasts "smashed to pieces".

A security official said that in one attack, a car filled with explosives crashed into a residential compound in Garnata, an eastern suburb. The compound, owned by Abdullah Al-Blaidh, deputy governor of Riyadh, includes several residential complexes and houses mainly Westerners.

Witnesses said the force of the blast shook nearby buildings and rattled windows.

A Briton Nick Holt-Kentwell said: "I was asleep, and we heard this massive explosion. At first of course you think its thunder and everybody comes out of their houses and then we realise after a short time that it was actually an explosion on another compound which was very close to us.

"With the Iraq situation in the last few months all the Westerners have very much been aware, we've been taking the advice of the embassy not to go into the shopping centres

"But generally speaking there has been a greater police presence in Riyadh and we've noticed that going to work there have been a lot more police cars."

The blasts followed a warning issued by the US State Department earlier this month advising Americans to avoid travel to Saudi Arabia because of terrorism concerns.

In recent years there have been a series of attacks on foreigners, mainly Britons and Americans, amid rising anti-Western sentiment in the kingdom.

Mr Powell, who was in Jordan, confirmed that he intended to go ahead with his visit to Saudi Arabia today for talks with the country's leaders and to ask for their help in controlling militant groups and promoting Palestinian reform.

Last week, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, announced that most of the 5,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia would leave by the end of the summer. Their presence has been a major irritant to the kingdom's rulers, who face strong anti-American sentiment from the population.

The American military presence in Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, was among the reasons given by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden for his hatred of the United States.

He used it often as his rallying call for Muslims to attack American interests worldwide. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the 11 September attacks were Saudis.

In 1996, a truck bombing killed 19 Americans at the Khobar Towers barracks in Dhahran.

Another car bombing in November 1995 at a American-run military training facility in Riyadh killed seven people, including five American military and civilian advisers to the Saudi National Guard.