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U.S., Saudis suspect al Qaeda in Riyadh blasts

Reports: At least one killed, dozens more injured

Smoke rises over the scene of one of the three attacks on compounds known to house U.S. citizens.
Smoke rises over the scene of one of the three attacks on compounds known to house U.S. citizens.

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CNN's Andrea Koppel reports U.S. and Saudi officials suspect al Qaeda in explosions that rocked the capital of Saudi Arabia.
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A witness describes gunfire and an explosion at one of the targeted compounds.
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Family members concerned about Americans in Riyadh may contact the U.S. Department of State from inside the U.S. at (888) 407-4747

Or from outside the U.S at
(317) 472-2328.
• Interactive: The hunt for al Qaeda
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• Special report: War against terror

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- U.S. and Saudi officials said they suspect al Qaeda in simultaneous explosions that rocked the Saudi capital late Monday, killing at least one person and hurting dozens of others.

The blasts tore through three compounds housing Americans here, officials and witnesses said. All resulted from vehicles detonating. Saudi officials said the assailants shot their way into the upscale, gated communities before setting off their explosives.

A fourth compound suffered collateral damage in the attacks, but there was not a fourth explosion, a senior State Department official said.

According to diplomatic sources, the housing complexes were Courdoval, Jedawal and The Hamra.

Official sources in Riyadh said the son of the city's deputy governor was killed in one of the blasts. U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan said more than 40 Americans were wounded and some Americans were killed, although he could not confirm the number of deaths.

Jordan said people of several other nationalities were also killed and wounded in the attacks.

"My heart goes out to the families of these victims of this terrible, cold-blooded attack," the ambassador told CNN's "Newsnight with Aaron Brown."

Jordan said some of the residents of the compounds were Western defense contractors, and others were advisers to the Saudi Arabia National Guard and other military units. He also said a number of non-Westerners were living in the compounds.

Three employees of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems were injured in the attacks, said company spokesman Dave Sloan in Seattle, Washington. One was taken to the hospital to get stitches for cuts he received from flying debris, and the others were treated at the scene for minor cuts, Sloan said.

The employees were at their villas about 150 feet away at the time of the blast, he said.

Boeing has 12 employees in Riyadh who serve as AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) training instructors to the Saudi Air Force.

The blasts occurred about 11 p.m. [4 p.m. EDT] on the eve of a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the city. A diplomatic source said Powell's plans "remain in place."

The explosions also followed recent U.S. government warnings of possible terror attacks against Americans in the kingdom. Last week, the Saudi government issued an all-points bulletin for 19 men -- 17 of whom are Saudi citizens -- on suspicion of planning attacks. (Full story)

Shortly after the explosions, thick smoke could be seen rising from the bombed areas. The Saudi Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it had started an investigation.

A U.S. official in Washington said "initial suspicions" are that the explosions "could very well" have been an al Qaeda operation against Americans and other Westerners in Saudi Arabia.

The official said the initial working hypothesis is based on three points:

• The simultaneity of the explosions, an al Qaeda hallmark

• Intelligence that led to the May 1 State Department travel warning concerning Saudi Arabia, which suggested al Qaeda was "in the final stages" of planning an attack or attacks there (Full story)

• The proximity of one of the bombed sites to the house where Saudi authorities seized explosives and weapons May 8, saying they belonged to al Qaeda

Saudi officials said they concurred that al Qaeda was likely involved.

"It's too early to tell for sure, but most of this is leading us in the direction of al Qaeda," one Saudi official told CNN.

Witness: 'The whole house shook like a cardboard box'

A woman who would give only her first name -- Helen -- said she was watching television when she heard gunfire.

An ambulance races to the scene of one of the Riyadh explosions.
An ambulance races to the scene of one of the Riyadh explosions.

"Before I knew it, there was a huge explosion. The sky lit up, and I just fell to the ground. The whole villa shook -- six bedrooms, eight bathrooms. The whole house shook like a cardboard box," she said.

The Australian six-year resident of the Jedawal compound did not want her full name used because her husband works for a U.S. military contractor.

Two trucks had rammed the rear gate and exploded, littering the compound with debris, she said.

"People have been killed," she said. "For the last hour and a half, ambulances have been just pulling people out.

"This has got to be one of the worst days of my life."

Most residents of the compound, which contains 440 villas and is surrounded by a heavy metal fence and armed guards, are Americans, though some are Saudis, she said.

Suleina Nimer, a reporter for the Al Hayat newspaper, said a witness told him he saw the attackers shoot an unarmed guard at one compound, enter it and detonate the vehicle. Nimer said there were "many casualties."

In Riyadh, U.S. Embassy spokesman John Burgess said Americans live in each of the three compounds, which are within three to four miles of each other in the western suburbs of this city of 4.3 million.

Raed Qusti, bureau chief for the privately owned Arab News, said the blasts could be heard on the outskirts of the Saudi capital. He said witnesses in the area reported hearing gunfire just before the explosions.

There were no immediate reports of deaths, but an unknown number of people were injured, Qusti said. State Department officials said they had received no reports of casualties.

The blasts were "extremely powerful," Qusti said. "We're talking about blasts that would shatter windows and doors," he told CNN.

The casualties were taken to several hospitals, including King Khaled Hospital and King Fahad National Guard Hospital, where a spokesman said he could not give information on the wounded.

U.S. had warned of possible attack

On May 1, the U.S. State Department warned Americans living in Saudi Arabia that "terrorist groups may be in the final phases of planning attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia.

"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Saudi Arabia," it said.

U.S. officials at the time told CNN that the information on which the travel warning was based was "credible" and "al Qaeda-related." Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were from Saudi Arabia, as is al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (Special report)

Saudi authorities seized tons of explosives and equipment May 8 that could be used in terrorist attacks. None of the 19 men sought have been taken into custody.

U.S. officials said the house where the seizure was made is about a quarter-mile from one of the compounds attacked Monday.

A Saudi official said the material found last week was "of a very high grade" meant to inflict "maximum damage."

"They were planning something big," this official said.

Just before the U.S.-led war in Iraq began, the State Department authorized the departure of the families of staff members at the U.S. Embassy, Burgess said.

Powell is scheduled to arrive Tuesday afternoon in Riyadh. He was spending Monday night in Amman, Jordan, after spending the previous two days in Israel and the West Bank. (Full story) (Itinerary)

U.S. officials are working with Saudi authorities to speed the arrival of U.S. security and consular affairs officials to the scenes of the explosions.

The American School in Riyadh will not open Tuesday, and one State Department official advised U.S. citizens in the capital to "remain at home" until authorities are able to "ascertain more of the facts and the ongoing threat."

Anti-American and pro-bin Laden sentiments have been strong in some parts of the country.

Bin Laden's anger with the United States stems in part from a decision by Saudi Arabia -- home to Islam's holiest sites -- to allow U.S. troops to be stationed there during the Persian Gulf War.

After the Gulf War, the U.S. military presence became permanent. During the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the Saudis refused to allow coalition forces to attack Iraq with aircraft based in their nation.

In a major policy shift, Washington announced late last month that its U.S. Combined Air Operations Center would be moved from Saudi Arabia to nearby Qatar. (Full story)

-- CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel, producer Elise Labott, national security correspondent David Ensor and Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler contributed to this report.

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