Two Britons die in al-Qa'ida gun rampage

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Two Britons were among at least nine people killed in Saudi Arabia yesterday in a shooting rampage which appeared to mark a chilling new tactic by al-Qa'ida.

Two Britons were among at least nine people killed in Saudi Arabia yesterday in a shooting rampage which appeared to mark a chilling new tactic by al-Qa'ida.

Four gunmen shouting "We are the mujaheddin" ­ the way al-Qa'ida activists in Saudi Arabia describe themselves ­ stormed the offices of an oil refinery before targeting other Westerners in drive-by attacks in Yanbu, north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.

The body of one victim was dragged behind the gunmen's car. Two Americans, an Australian and a Saudi member of the national guard also died in the mayhem. Saudi authorities believe the attack was carried out by four men on a list of 26 wanted militants, published in December, many of whom they linked to al-Qa'ida.

There was further violence in Iraq, too, where a seven-hour firefight with insurgents left six British soldiers injured.

Although Westerners in Saudi have been targeted in numerous bomb attacks blamed on al-Qa'ida, yesterday's shootout was one of the most audacious assaults in a growing terrorist campaign. It was a sharp riposte to the US, which recently praised the Saudis for successfully cracking down on al-Qa'ida.

The Britons, who have not been named, and the other Westerners were killed in the initial early-morning assault in a giant petrochemical complex co-owned by Exxon Mobil.

The terrorists then went on a shooting spree through the port's centre, singling out hotels and a McDonald's restaurant for attack. Michael Cousins, managing editor of the English-language daily Arab News, based in Jeddah, said he had been told by a number of sources that the men were targeting Westerners.

Three of the gunmen died following a firefight with Saudi police outside Yanbu's Holiday Inn, in which at least one local police officer was seriously wounded. Two of the attackers are reported to have blown themselves up in their car, a third was killed by security forces and a fourth was captured.

The location of the attack appeared aimed at damaging the Saudi economy: Yanbu, until 30 years ago a tiny port, is the main Red Sea terminal for crude oil exports, as well as the location of massive joint investments in refineries and petrochemicals by Saudi and foreign companies. Thousands of foreigners work in the city, which has a total population of 40,000.

Tony Blair last night declined to comment on the attack before the victims' families had been informed. Britain's ambassador in Riyadh, Sherard Cowper-Coles, last night travelled to the scene.

One of the British victims is believed to have been an employee of ABB Lummus Global, the energy arm of the multinational ABB engineering group. The other was a sub-contractor for the firm, which recently built a major refinery in the port. The other Western victims also worked for the company.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said: "Four individuals entered the offices of a Saudi contractor and randomly shot at Saudi and foreign employees." The gunmen then fled into residential neighbourhoods of Yanbu, 550 miles west of Riyadh, and commandeered cars, "but security forces were able to kill three of them and injure and capture the fourth," the ministry said.

Mr Cousins said he had been told that the men then began shooting indiscriminately, but mainly at Westerners. "They drove through town shooting at everything in sight ­ cars, people, the lot," said Mr Cousins. "They also targeted a McDonald's and a hotel, shooting at whatever moved, they seemed to be targeting Westerners."

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, offered condolences to the families of those killed: "We will not be discouraged by this brutal incident in which innocent lives were lost ­ British, American and Australian as well as Saudi Arabian ­ and many people injured in an indiscriminate evil rampage."

Local hospitals reported around 28 people injured. Bjorn Edlund, a spokesman for ABB Lummus Global, said that two other employees had been injured in the attack. "Losing five employees in a terrorist attack is a terrible, terrible thing to happen," he said. The Australian killed has been identified as Anthony Richard Mason, 57, from Western Australia.

The six British soldiers were injured after a foot patrol came under fire in the southern Iraqi city of Amarah. One of them suffered serious injuries and was evacuated to a military hospital.

The attack sparked a seven-and-a-half hour gun battle with insurgents in the city centre which killed five Iraqis, said to be followers of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Five of soldiers were reportedly wounded as they recovered their injured colleague.