| A Saudi man reads the news in a Khobar hotel. (AFP)
Khobar (Saudi Arabia), May 31 (Reuters): Saudi forces hunted today for suspected al Qaida militants who killed 22 civilians and took dozens of foreigners hostage in a daring attack on the kingdom’s globally vital oil industry.
Security forces set up nationwide checkpoints after three gunmen, using hostages as human shields, escaped Saudi commandos who stormed a residential compound in the eastern oil city of Khobar yesterday to end a 25-hour siege.
All the hostages who had not been killed were freed.
The kingdom is the world’s largest crude oil exporter and state-owned giant Saudi Aramco vowed to keep supplies flowing smoothly in a bid to avert a hike in already-high world oil prices. Most energy markets will not reopen until tomorrow.
The interior ministry said a total of 41 people had been held hostage and 201 trapped inside the compound. A Saudi diplomat said nine hostages — including some Westerners — were killed during the stand-off.
Rescued hostages said none of the civilians had been killed by security forces and one of the staff at the complex said Saudi forces let the gunmen out after they threatened to blow up themselves and their captives.
An Internet statement purporting to come from al Qaida said Osama bin Laden’s network had carried out the assault and the unprecedented hostage-taking, which raised the stakes in the battle Saudi Arabia has waged with the group for a year.
The Khobar assault was the second in less than a month on the Saudi oil industry, a lifeline of the world economy. The attacks appear aimed at overthrowing the Saudi monarchy, which al Qaida has vowed to bring down.
Saudi King Fahd vowed militant attacks would not shake the kingdom, a key US ally.
“These criminal acts by deviants will only strengthen our resolve to fight terrorism,” he said in a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency.
The bloodbath began on Saturday when gunmen in military garb opened fire on the Al-Khobar Petroleum Centre building, housing offices of major Western oil firms, before storming into compounds containing oil services offices and employees’ homes.
“There were pools of blood, blood is everywhere,” said a member of the staff at the upmarket Oasis compound, adding that freed hostages told him there had been more than four attackers.
The hotel where the foreign hostages were held was still sealed off after the siege, with bullet-holes, blood stains, shattered glass, empty cartridges and grenades as evidence of the havoc, he said.
A hostage heard the gunmen shouting they would release captives if security forces let them go, the employee said.
“The security forces refused at the beginning but then apparently relented,” he said.“There was a kind of a deal reached to let the hostages go free, though some hostages had already been killed.”
The interior ministry said three gunmen escaped but that Saudi forces wounded and captured their leader. Security sources said a car the militants had taken was found abandoned on the outskirts of the nearby city of Dammam.
Among those to condemn the violence were Arab officials and Muslim groups, including the Palestinian militant movement Hamas.
Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh, said the attackers were “enemies’ puppets”.
The statement purported to be from al Qaida said the attack was the result of “detailed observation”.