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Saudi: Gunmen allowed to escape

Al Qaeda blamed for attack


start quoteWhat is this? Terrorism? Islam? What is it? Those are not Muslims.end quote
-- Samir al-Ghunaimy, father of 10-year-old boy killed in the attack
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(CNN) -- Three of four attackers who killed 22 people in the Saudi oil city of Khobar were allowed to escape because they were threatening to kill 242 people being held as human shields, a senior Saudi Interior Ministry official says.

A group connected to the al Qaeda terrorist network claimed responsibility for the weekend attacks, saying they were intended to show the Saudi government cannot protect its oil workers.

The official said Monday the attackers told Saudi commanders they were wearing explosive belts and would set off blasts killing the people they were holding.

At that point, the official said, the Saudi commanders decided to let them go.

The three men fled in a car belonging to a resident of a residential complex they had penetrated. They changed cars several times and eluded Saudi security forces, the official said.

However, he added, the security forces know who the three men are and what they look like.

The 25-hour rampage began Saturday at 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT) when gunmen clad in military-style uniforms went on a shooting spree inside two oil industry office compounds of APICORP (Arab Petroleum Investments Corp.), Saudi officials said.

A Web site connected to the Jerusalem Brigade, a group Saudi officials say is linked to al Qaeda, carried a report Monday saying the attackers created a diversion and slipped into the compound that houses oil workers.

The dispatch boasted that the attackers slit the throats of nine hostages at the Oasis Residential Resorts, one of the buildings housing the oil workers.

The victims of the rapid series of three attacks Saturday in Khobar included three Saudis, one American, one Italian, eight Indians, three Filipinos, two Sri Lankans, one Swede, one South African, one Briton and one child -- a 10-year-old Egyptian boy -- the ministry said.

A fourth attacker was captured when he was severely wounded. The Saudi official said the attacker had undergone surgery for his wounds.

Saudi officials have not publicly identified the attacker who was captured, but the Interior Ministry said he was near the top of Saudi Arabia's list of most-wanted al Qaeda members.

"It certainly looks like al Qaeda to me," Steve Simon, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation, told CNN's American Morning.

"Of course, al Qaeda has many affiliated groups, but the originating half of al Qaeda did stem from Saudi Arabia. So it's got deep roots there."

Simon said the attackers' objectives included getting Christians out of Saudi Arabia, driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States "because they feel that the royal family will go down if it loses outside support" and making the government look foolish and weak "by carrying out these attacks and getting away with it."

In a message posted on its Web site, the radical Islamic group Hamas questioned the Khobar attacks, saying organizers should consider the effects such attacks will have on those who practice Islam.

Venkataramani Baskar was on the third floor of the Oasis complex when the attack began above him.

"Suddenly ... we started hearing the grenades," he told a reporter.

"So they were carrying grenades and I could hear the grenades being rolled on the ground and bursting out. That scared me a lot. Because I could hear 'ta-ta-ta' rolling noise and then a big bang and the whole building was shaking."

Baskar said he thought the building would collapse.

"That is when I called my colleagues and told them 'Guys, I am stuck in the third floor, the fourth and fifth floor are the one target where people are hitting and why can't you get me out?"

Eventually, he did get out, and flew to Dubai, where he was reunited with his family. "I am enjoying my second life," he said.

Another witness described the attackers as "very young -- maybe 20 year olds, even 18. And one of them was old, maybe in his 30s."

The incident was the worst terrorist act in Saudi Arabia for a year and the second this month to target the lucrative oil industry.

A claim of responsibility for the assault was posted on an Islamic Web site from the Jerusalem Brigade, a group Saudi officials said they believe is linked to al Qaeda.

The statement on the Web site said the violence was intended to punish the Saudi kingdom for its oil dealings with the United States.

Along with the statement was an audio recording attributed to Abdel Aziz Muqrin, identified by Saudi authorities as the country's top al Qaeda figure and at the top of the kingdom's most-wanted list.

The audiotape attributed to Muqrin declared "a clear victory," saying the "heroes" managed to kill "many crusaders of different nationalities, among them an American who was dragged on the streets of the city. Another one is a high official in a British oil company, and another is an Italian who was slaughtered and given as a gift to the Italian government."

Britain's Foreign Office said a British citizen named Michael Hamilton was missing and presumed dead.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh has advised all Americans to leave Saudi Arabia.

After the shooting spree in the APICORP office compounds, the attackers moved up the street and blasted their way into the sprawling Oasis residential complex, entering in at least three separate locations. They shot and killed at least two Saudi security guards before opening fire on surrounding buildings.

The Interior Ministry said the gunmen attempted to drive their explosives-laden car to the residential complex.

When gates and guards thwarted their attempts to drive near the building, they scaled fences and began the rampage in which they took hostages, the ministry statement said.

Syrian-American Marwan Mowad, who was holed up in his villa during the attack, told CNN the attackers avoided entering the main gate because it was heavily secured.

story.khobar.s.arabia.gif

He said he saw the gunmen target Westerners.

"One guy, a Frenchman, his wife and kids, [the gunmen] knew they were inside [a villa] so they tried to put the place on fire," but the family survived, he said. (Full story)

Saudi security forces initially tried storming the complex from the ground, but stopped after some of the police were wounded, a Saudi official said.

They tried to persuade the gunmen to surrender and release the hostages before again using force.

The ministry said security forces evacuated people from the complex in two stages before the assault. In the first, 201 were ushered out, and in the second, 41 people were evacuated, the ministry said. It was not clear how many of these if any had been held by the attackers.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said seven Americans were among those rescued before the assault. Several Lebanese hostages were released Saturday at the request of that country's ambassador.

CNNArabic.com Editor Caroline Faraj contributed to this report


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