| US secretary of state Colin Powell in front of the wrecked buildings in an expatriate compound in Riyadh. (Reuters)
Riyadh, May 13 (Reuters): Armed guards and high walls around fortified compounds gave scant protection to expatriates living in the Saudi capital Riyadh when suicide bombers shot their way into three complexes to set off huge car bombs.
At least 91 people, including 10 Americans, died overnight, hours before US secretary of state Colin Powell flew in today. He blamed Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida group for the synchronised suicide assaults that gutted homes as people slept.
By residents’ accounts, the attackers appeared to have driven through the gates of the three housing compounds, guns blazing, and charged past armed guards in a hail of automatic fire before detonating massive charges aboard their vehicles.
Police and soldiers milled about mangled cars and destroyed buildings, collecting evidence from mounds of debris and surveying the extensive damage.
Helen, an Australian, told CNN trucks rammed into gates at her walled and guarded compound and exploded after an exchange of gunfire, shaking her sturdy villa like a cardboard box.
In one compound, the entire facade had been ripped off apartment blocks. A clock stood still at 32 minutes to midnight.
“I woke up from a big bang and I found my husband lying on the floor beside me. The windows were all gone,” one unidentified South African woman told al Arabiya television.
Her husband spoke to the channel as a stream of blood trickled down his leg: “What can I tell you' Lots happened, and it happened so quickly... Basically everything’s destroyed.”
Charred vehicles, their frames twisted and still smouldering, littered the compounds, made up of villas and four-storey apartment blocks.
Many balconies were blown off, their truncated steel girders jutting into the night sky. The bombs also gouged massive holes in many walls and felled roofs, destroying water storage tanks.
Rubble, tyres and the shattered limbs of trees filled a swimming pool at one compound while the collapsed concrete and metal gate of another hung limply above the remains of a car. At the third blast site — a group of low-rise blocks surrounded by piles of debris — the explosion caused a large crater in the pavement in front of the buildings, from which the facades had been ripped off by the blast.
“We were sleeping when we were woken up by the sound of gunfire,” Nick, a European, told the Arab News newspaper. “Moments later, a loud explosion was heard followed by another bigger explosion.”
A US official said one of the compounds housed employees of Vinnell Corp, a US defence contractor which trains the Saudi National Guard. The others — al Hamra and al Jadwal complexes — housed Saudis and Arab, American and other foreigners.
Witnesses said the attacks were in the Riyadh districts of Gharnata, Ishbilya and Cordoba.
Al Qaida e-mails
A purported al Qaida commander has sent e-mails to a respected Arab magazine claiming the group has stockpiled weapons in the Gulf, where suicide bombers attacked Western compounds in Saudi Arabia last night.
“He revealed the presence of big amounts of weapons and explosives in stores in Gulf cities that have been prepared (for operations),” the Saudi-owned al-Majalla magazine said, referring to Abu Mohamed al-Ablaj, who it said is also known as al-Mullah Seifeddin.
Ablaj gave no forewarning of yesterday’s attacks that killed at least 29 people, including 10 Americans, in his e-mails to the London-based weekly last weekend, the magazine said in an advance copy of its Sunday issue.
US secretary of state Colin Powell and Saudi officials said yesterday’s attacks bore the hallmarks of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network, blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on US cities.
Ablaj has previously identified himself to the magazine as the supervisor of an al Qaida unit called Mujahideen (holy warriors) Training Centre, the weekly said.
Ablaj has not previously been heard of as an al Qaida operative, but the magazine, which is well-respected in the Arab world, said he had been in touch with them since early April vowing anti-US attacks.
In his latest comments, he appeared to stress that al Qaida would focus on military targets in the Gulf.
“With all its experience of guerrilla warfare gained in Afghanistan and Chechnya, al Qaida will move the battle to the Gulf and Arabian peninsula, and air bases, warships and military bases will be targeted,” the magazine quoted Ablaj as saying. Islamic radicals fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s and then Russia’s military in Russia’s rebel region of Chechnya.
In the e-mails, Ablaj said the police seizure of a huge cache of weapons and explosives in Riyadh last week had not affected al Qaida’s plans.