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Mass exodus fear stalks hostage-hit Riyadh

Riyadh, June 13 (Reuters): Saudi and US authorities are working closely to locate an American engineer who al Qaida said it had kidnapped after it killed another US national in the capital Riyadh, security sources said today.

The kidnapping added a new twist to al Qaida’s campaign to drive Western “infidels” from the kingdom and oust the Saudi royal family who they deem “ungodly and subservient to America”.

Riyadh’s police chief denied reports that the body of a Westerner had been found in the streets of the capital. Earlier today, diplomats and security sources said a body, thought to be that of a westerner, had been found dumped near a building.

Saudi and US authorities are still trying to locate US engineer, Paul M. Johnson, 45, who al Qaida claimed it had kidnapped yesterday.

“We are working with local authorities to find him,” a US embassy spokeswoman said.

Yesterday’s killing of a US national, the sixth attack on Westerners in six weeks, rattled tens of thousands of expatriates in the world’s largest oil exporter, prompting fears of mass exodus.

Police, hunting for militants, said they sealed off two areas in Riyadh and arrested two suspects. It was not immediately clear whether the action was linked to the killing and kidnapping.

US secretary of state Colin Powell today cited a worsening security situation in Saudi Arabia and said the US was determined to do all it could to defeat “terrorists”.

“Clearly this is a dangerous time for Saudi Arabia and we’re working with them and cooperating with them in every way we can to defeat these terrorists,” Powell told NBC. “It’s not unravelling, but it’s certainly a dangerous situation.”

Powell told Fox News that Riyadh could do more to combat the attacks, though he was satisfied with their efforts so far.

“The Saudis now know that they have a very serious problem within the kingdom and they know that it is going to require all their resources,” Powell said.

Al Qaida claimed responsibility for kidnapping Johnson and killing American Kenneth Scroggs yesterday in a statement on an Islamist website.

Witnesses said Scroggs, who worked for Advanced Electronics Co., was shot as he parked his car in front of his villa in a Riyadh suburb.

Britain said today it had authorised non-essential staff at the British embassy and their relatives to leave the country if they wished. The US has urged its citizens to leave.

Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida, blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on US cities, has vowed 2004 would be “bloody and miserable” for the kingdom, a key US ally.

Fears about Saudi security helped push world oil prices to record highs this month before producers pledged to hike output.

Al Qaida said yesterday’s killing and kidnapping were to avenge US mistreatment of Muslim prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Expatriates are concerned that the assaults are increasing in momentum and that militants are escaping unharmed from Saudi security forces. So far, none of the militants responsible for the latest attacks have been arrested.

But Saudi analysts said the government must improve intelligence rather than carry out a random military crackdown.

“These groups are divided into small cells which are spread out. The only way to know when they are going to hit next is to penetrate them. You cannot guard the entire kingdom so it is a matter of intelligence,” Khalid al-Dakheel said.

The website that carried the kidnapping claim also posted a video showing the purported killing of another American, military contractor Robert Jacobs, in Riyadh on Tuesday.

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