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At Least 13 in U.S. Military Killed in Saudi Bombing

By Bradley Graham
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A truck bomb exploded Tuesday just outside the fence of a military compound in Saudi Arabia housing U.S. service members, killing at least 13 Americans and injuring about 160, U.S. officials said.

The enormous blast near the air base in Dhahran, from which U.S. planes patrol the skies over Iraq, toppled one apartment tower where U.S. troops live along with French, British and Saudi personnel. It severely damaged several other buildings, according to sketchy preliminary reports from the scene.

Reverberations from the explosion, triggered in what Pentagon officials called a fuel tanker truck that had been parked by the compound's security fence, could be felt 50 miles away across the water in Bahrain.

No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but U.S. officials were working on the assumption that it was a terrorist attack.

"The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists, and if that is the case, like all Americans, I am outraged by it," a visibly shaken President Clinton told reporters at a White House briefing.

"The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished."

The blast came seven months after a powerful car bomb ripped into a building occupied by American military trainers in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh.

The blast killed five Americans and two Indians and wounding about 60 others.

Four Saudi men were arrested for the bombing and beheaded three weeks ago; they acknowledged ideological ties to well-known Islamic extremists outside Saudi Arabia.

Last month, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh issued a security advisory to the 35,000-strong American community in Saudi Arabia, informing them of anonymous warnings of retaliation against U.S. interests if the four were punished. An American security team had just completed a review of facilities in Saudi Arabia, a senior Pentagon official said, although another senior military official said U.S. forces in the region "were not at a high security alert."

A U.S. military policeman in a watchtower at the compound observed the tanker being parked and then abandoned by its driver around 10 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT), according to Pentagon officials.

"The MP started an evacuation procedure for that side of the compound," said a defense official, "and a Saudi defense team was moving toward the truck when it exploded."

An Air Force sergeant, slightly injured in the blast, said, "I heard a deafening noise and then the windows shattered and the walls fell in."

"People were running everywhere," Staff Sgt. Tyler Christie, 31, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., told the Associated Press by telephone. "A few buildings were destroyed."

About 2,500 U.S. service members are based at Khobar Towers, a large complex of apartment, administrative and recreational buildings on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia. Most are Air Force personnel, members of the 4404th Air Wing whose principal mission is to enforce a ban on flights by Iraqi military aircraft below the 32nd parallel. The ban was instituted shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which a U.S.-led coalition based in Saudi Arabia drove Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait.

The Army also has troops at the base manning a Patriot anti-missile battery and a communications battalion.

U.S. officials in Washington said that their casualty count included only Americans and that numerous Saudis and possibly others may also have been killed or wounded, particularly since civilian Saudi homes are across the street from where the truck was parked. With 60 of the injured Americans said to be in "serious" condition, Pentagon officials said the number of fatalities could rise.

Devastating by any standard, the blast seemed especially shocking in Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, which historically has avoided the kind of extremist violence that has long plagued its poorer neighbors. But last year's attack in Riyadh shattered whatever sense of untouchability that existed, and Tuesday's explosion suggested such violence may become a more frequent threat.

If the terrorists had support of a foreign state, the list of possible suspects would include the other two principal Persian Gulf powers, Iran and Iraq, both of which are hostile to Saudi Arabia and the United States and have often been accused of sponsoring terrorism. But as last November's car bombing showed, home-grown Islamic extremists also pose a dangerous challenge to Saudi rule.

Three of the four held responsible for last November's bombing had joined the forces of the mujaheddin, or Islamic holy warriors, against the Soviet army in Afghanistan during the late 1980s.

One of the four said he fought on the side of the Muslim-led Bosnian government during the Bosnian war that ended last year.