Three Frenchmen were killed yesterday and at least one other was injured when they were singled out for attack by militants while travelling in the Saudi Arabian desert north of Medina.
The attack is a major setback to Saudi Arabia's efforts to stamp out Al Qa'ida and its sympathisers in the kingdom. It is the first militant attack on foreigners in three years.
The victims, part of a group of eight travellers were fired on after a car stopped them on a road near the town of Tabouk and an archeological site near Madain Saleh. Some of the group may also have been returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Witnesses said that the attackers deliberately targeted the men in the group leaving the women and children unharmed. The dead included a teacher from the French school in the capital Riyadh and two employees of Schneider Electric corporation.
The Saudi authorities who first reported the attack said: "Undoubtedly, this is a criminal act, but it's too early to determine whether it is terrorism."
Suspicion immediately fell on al Qa'ida, which has been targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia for several years. Al Qa'ida units have also attacked petroleum installations and administrative buildings.
In the Al-Khobar massacres of May 2004, four Islamist terrorists attacked the Oasis Compound, in the Gulf city of Khobar, taking more than 50 hostages and killing 22. The attackers reportedly asked the hostages whether they were Christian or Muslim, before letting the Muslims go. Several hostages had their throats slit.In the following months foreigners were attacked and killed, including Irish news cameraman Simon Cumbers.
Saudi Arabia has been waging a heavy campaign against al-Qa'ida militants since the attacks on foreigners began in 2003. The French ambassador to Saudi Arabia was headed to the site of the attack last night.
France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said: "I condemn this horrible act. I express my profound sympathy to the family and friends of the victims. French authorities are mobilized along with the Saudi authorities, so that light be shed and that those responsible be detained and punished."
The group was travelling in an area mainly restricted for Muslims only because the road where the attack occurred leads to Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad died and was buried. Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki a spokesman for the kingdom's Interior Ministry said it was possible they were travelling to another ancient site north of Medina where the Saudi government recently started allowing non-Muslims to visit.
The archaeological site Madain Saleh is a site of extraordinary tombs that were carved into the side of cliffs between 100 BC and 100 AD when it was a thriving kingdom of Nabataean people. It is a favourite with the few tourists who visit Saudi Arabia.
The last attack on a foreigner was in 2004 when a Frenchman Laurent Barbot was shot dead in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah by militants. The Saudi war with Al Qa'i'da has claimed the lives of more than 136 militants and 150 foreigners as well as many members of the Saudi security services.