Saudi hunts Briton's killer as al-Qa'ida warns of more attacks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Saudi forces were last night scouring a notorious district of Riyadh for the Islamic militants who mounted a machine-gun attack that claimed the life of a BBC cameraman and critically injured security correspondent Frank Gardner.

Saudi forces were last night scouring a notorious district of Riyadh for the Islamic militants who mounted a machine-gun attack that claimed the life of a BBC cameraman and critically injured security correspondent Frank Gardner.

With militants linked to al-Qa'ida suspected of the attack, a statement posted on the internet warns of further strikes on western compounds, bases and airlines in the kingdom.

Sunday's attack, the fourth in five weeks on Westerners in the kingdom that is battling al-Qa'ida militants, heightened security fears among the tens of thousands of expatriates in the world's largest oil exporter.

Mr Gardner, who was last night battling for his life in a Saudi hospital, and Mr Cumbers had travelled to Saudi Arabia to report on the escalating threat to foreigners. Last month alone, 22 people, 19 of them foreigners, were killed in the Gulf city of Khobar by gunmen.

In Mr Gardner's broadcasts before he was attacked, He reported a palpably heightened sense of tension and unease in the Saudi capital. He asked for permission to film at Al-Suwaidi, a vast, sprawling slum south of Riyadh with a 500,000 population, many swayed by militant Wahhaabi clerics.

Al-Suwaidi is widely regarded as a place of the dispossessed, with its narrow potholed lanes and open sewers a world away from the modern skyscrapers and five-star hotels of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The district is the home to 15 of Saudi Arabia's 26 most-wanted Islamist suspects including Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin, the head of al-Qa'ida in the kingdom, the government says, and the mastermind behind the Khobar massacre.

The BBC team received their authorisation to work in Al-Suwaidi late on Sunday morning. The journalists arrived just after lunchtime and started filming behind a supermarket, outside the home of Ibrahim Al-Rayees, a militant killed by security forces last year. Al-Rayees has been hailed as a shaheed, or martyr, by his followers, and the United States was blamed for complicity in his death.

The television team were received guardedly but without hostility, local people said. But suddenly, a car appeared and the occupants, their faces hidden by keffiyahs, opened fire. Mr Cumbers fell immediately. Mr Gardner and a Saudi information ministry official tried to take cover, but the BBC reporter was hit.

The emergency services were called by local people and the two journalists were taken to Al-Iman Hospital, with Mr Gardner in critical condition and Mr Cumbers already dead.

Mr Cumbers, a 36-year-old freelance cameraman, who had worked several conflict zones, is said to have been killed almost instantly. His wife of seven years, Louise Bevan, who is also a journalist, is flying to the kingdom from the family home at Co Meath, in Ireland.

Mr Gardner was shot at least five times, in the abdomen, arm and legs. He was described as stable after surgery.

One report suggested that the killers came in three vehicles, a black Jeep and two saloon cars. The Ministry of Information driver and minder escorting the BBC team were unhurt. Mr Gardner, 42, is married, with two young daughters. A graduate of Arabic and Islamic literature from Exeter University, he had worked in the commercial sector in Saudi Arabia before joining the BBC. As the Corporations' security correspondent, most of his work centred around al-Qa'ida.

The daylight murder in the capital, Riyadh, allegedly by al-Qa'ida, has brought into grim focus just how incendiary the situation has become in the land of one of the largest suppliers of oil to the US and Europe. The shooting was heavily covered throughout the Middle East, with Arabic television channels showing footage of Mr Gardner, covered in blood, slumped on the road. In Britain, Tony Blair said: "Our first thoughts are obviously with the families of those that have been involved, but I think it is important we recognise that - day in, day out - this is a strategy by terrorists who will kill innocent people, who will kill people who are involved in our democracy. We have seen, since 11 September, and Bali and Madrid, they are a threat in literally every part of the world."

Jack Straw added: "Frank Gardner is an outstanding reporter who always seeks to do everything he can to explain the dangerous world we live inn ... I have nothing but admiration for journalists like Mr Gardner who know their lives are at risk as they go about their work."

The BBC yesterday sent a team of journalists and executives to Saudi Arabia. Richard Sambrook, the director of news, said: "We certainly intend to go on reporting what is happening in Saudi Arabia, but obviously how many people we deploy there and the kind of people we deploy there, we have to think out very carefully."

The Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki Al Faisal, knew Mr Gardner well. He said he had been keeping track of developments through calls to hospital staff and government officials in Riyadh. The ambassador, posted to Britain last year, is an influential member of the Saud Royal family. One of the main aims of his mission had been one of reassurance to the West about the continuing stability of the House of Saud.

Comments