Riyadh, May 13 (Reuters): Suicide bombers in the Saudi capital killed 91 people, the US vice-president said on Tuesday, making the attack on expatriate housing compounds one of the biggest suspected al Qaida strikes on western targets.
However, there remained considerable doubt about the toll.
In a coordinated strike hours before a visit to Riyadh by US secretary of state Colin Powell, the attackers drove, guns blazing, into three guarded housing compounds for expatriates shortly before midnight on Monday and set off huge car bombs.
“This was a well-planned terrorist attack,” Powell said in Riyadh. “It has all the fingerprints of an al Qaida operation.”
Vice-President Dick Cheney said “some 91 people were killed”. But Saudi officials had said earlier that 29 had died, including nine bombers. Medical sources in the secretive kingdom later questioned Cheney’s figure, sticking to a toll of 29.
Other US officials could not confirm Cheney’s figure. Powell had earlier said up to 10 Americans were among the dead.
On a West Asian tour to explain US policy after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Powell visited a walled complex for US defence workers and saw for himself the devastation wrought as residents slept. Entire walls of apartment blocks had collapsed.
“These despicable acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate, and the United States will find the killers and they will learn the meaning of American justice,” said President George W. Bush in Indianapolis. “The war on terror continues.”
US officials in the kingdom had been on the alert. Just days ago, a purported al Qaida spokesman told a Saudi-owned magazine of a new September 11-style attack: “The strike on America is definitely coming,” Thabet bin Qais told al Majalla.
Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida, blamed by Washington for the coordinated hijack attacks on September 11, 2001, has struck US bases and other targets in Saudi Arabia before in its bid to drive US troops from a land sacred to Islam.
Though Washington announced a troop withdrawal from the kingdom two weeks ago after ousting Saddam, Bush’s critics have warned that the Iraq war may fan hatred of America across the Muslim world. Riyadh was the first major attack on Americans since the war.
“This could be the beginning of a major campaign aimed at the Americans,” exiled Saudi opposition activist Saad al-Fagih said. “This is the beginning of martyrdom operations.”
At least nine Indians were among those injured. “Out of the nine, eight have been released after first aid while one Ahmed Munir is still in hospital,” Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Talmiz Ahmed said.