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Car Bomb Rips into Saudi Office; Kills Five Americans

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post
CAIRO, Egypt

A powerful car bomb ripped into a building occupied by American military trainers Monday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five Americans and wounding 30 others, Saudi and U.S. officials said.

The bomb, which exploded shortly before midday in a busy commercial district of the Saudi capital, sheared off a wall of the three-story office building, shattered windows in nearby apartment blocks and created a pillar of smoke that could be seen for miles, witnesses said. In all, six people were killed and 60 wounded, according to the Saudi government.

Most of those killed were eating lunch in a snack bar when the bomb went off, U.S. Ambassador Ray Mabus said in a telephone interview from Riyadh. The targeted building is part of a complex belonging to the Saudi National Guard, part of the kingdom's internal security force, which receives training and technical support from U.S. military personnel and private contractors.

Devastating by any standard, the blast seemed especially shocking in Saudi Arabia, which traditionally has avoided the kind of extremist violence that has long plagued its poorer neighbors. Suspicion immediately fell on Islamic extremists, who have criticized the ruling Saud family for corruption and excessive coziness with the West, the United States in particular.

But analysts said it is too early to rule out the possibility of involvement by hostile foreign powers such as Iraq or Iran.

Within hours of the car-bomb attack, international news agencies received claims of responsibility from two groups, the Islamic Movement for Change and the previously unheard-of Tigers of the Gulf. Neither claim could be authenticated. But in two statements last spring, the Islamic Movement for Change threatened to attack U.S. military personnel if they were not withdrawn from Saudi Arabia by June 28, Mabus said.

The United States has long maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, which is the world's largest oil exporter and a major consumer of American arms as well as a discreet partner in the Middle East peace process. In particular, Saudi Arabia was the main base for U.S. and allied military operations in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign that drove Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait.

The last known time the U.S. military was attacked in Saudi Arabia came then, when an unknown assailant fired on a military bus, slightly wounding two Americans.

President Clinton vowed in Washington that the United States will track down those responsible for Monday's blast.

U.S. Embassy officials in Riyadh said the bomb exploded at about 11:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. EST) in a parking lot alongside the office building, which serves as headquarters for the U.S. Army training mission to the 77,000-man National Guard. Mabus described the training mission as a long-standing program that covers many activities, from military maneuvers to maintenance and supply.

The mission includes military personnel, civilian employees of the Army and private contractors, Mabus said.

Four of the Americans killed were civilian employees, while the fifth was a soldier, Mabus said. A Filipino employee also was killed.

The blast wounded about 30 Americans, 20 of whom were still in the hospital Monday night, Mabus said. Three of the hospitalized Americans were listed in critical condition.

Early reports indicated that the initial blast was followed minutes later by a second, smaller explosion, but a European diplomat said the second blast appeared to have been caused by a fuel tank in a burning vehicle.

The training mission, housed in a converted apartment complex, is situated near a compound of administrative offices for the Saudi National Guard in the well-to-do business and shopping district of al-Olaia. But unlike that office complex, the training mission is readily accessible from public streets, Mabus said.

"It's on a main thoroughfare," Mabus said. "It's not in a compound. It's not behind a wall." The bomber, he added, either parked the explosives-laden vehicle -- described in Washington as a van -- on the street next to the building or in the parking lot.

The National Guard reports directly to the Saudi royal family and is headed by Crown Prince Abdullah, who is in line to take over as ruler upon the death of King Fahd.

It consists primarily of light-infantry units and, unlike the Saudi regular army, has responsibility for internal security, such as protecting oil installations.