KUWAIT CITY – A Kuwaiti police officer said to have a history of mental problems was arrested in Saudi Arabia on Friday, a day after he allegedly shot two American soldiers and fled across the border, a Kuwaiti official said.
The suspect, Khaled al-Shimmiri, was picked up in eastern Saudi Arabia near the border, the state-run Kuwait News Agency reported. He was expected to be extradited to Kuwait, the agency said.
Al-Shimmiri, who allegedly shot and seriously wounded the two men along a desert highway Thursday, had been a patient at a Kuwait psychiatric hospital, an Interior Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It was not clear whether he was a former patient, and there was no explanation of why he was on patrol duty if he was still receiving treatment.
While Kuwait has sought to the portray the incident as the work of a single, unbalanced man, the shooting came amid increasing fears that anti-Americanism is growing in this Gulf state, long a staunch American ally. It was the second shooting of American troops here in the past six weeks.
Authorities have offered no possible explanation for the latest attack, and Kuwaiti press reports said al-Shimmiri was not known to have any ties to extremist Muslim groups. But the Arabic-language daily Al-Qabas, which is widely read by liberal Kuwaitis, warned that "the worst might be yet to come."
"Terrorism continues to infiltrate our security institutions," the independent newspaper said in a front-page editorial that appeared to dismiss government insistence that the anti-American attacks do not represent broad sentiment here.
The injured soldiers were visited Friday by Lt. Gen. Ali al-Mo'min, chief of staff of the Kuwaiti armed forces, and by American Ambassador Richard Jones. Television footage, filmed by the Defense Ministry and obtained by Associated Press Television News, showed al-Mo'min speaking to the two men in their hospital beds — though only one soldier could speak. The other, his head wrapped in a white bandage, wrote a note to the Kuwaiti general.
Jones said later he had "praised their quick thinking and courage under fire."
"I assured them that we are working closely with Kuwaiti government officials to see that the person responsible for this assault is brought to justice," he said in a statement.
But the Thursday shooting has raised concerns about the safety of the more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Kuwait. Most people here support the U.S. military presence, following the 1991 Gulf War when U.S.-led forces drove out occupying Iraqi troops. The number of U.S. troops here have increased in recent months, since Kuwait would be a key staging ground for any attack on Iraq.
The Kuwait shooting follows several other attacks on Americans in the region. An American nurse and missionary, 31-year-old Bonnie Penner, was shot repeatedly in the head Thursday in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, a killing a Lebanese security official said appeared to be the result of "the mounting anti-American sentiments in the Middle East." The killing came just weeks after American diplomat Laurence Foley was shot in front of his home in Amman, Jordan. There have been no arrests in his killing.
The details of Thursday's shooting in Kuwait remain vague. Various reports say the patrol officer flagged the Americans' car down before the shooting, possibly for speeding, or that the attacker fired on them from his own car.
U.S. officials have not released the soldiers' names, but Lt. Col. Paul Gautreaux of the 336th Finance Command in Louisiana confirmed two of its soldiers were shot in the attack.
Master Sgt. Larry Thomas, 51, shot in the upper chest, was in serious but stable condition after surgery, his wife, Geraldine Thomas, said in Lake Charles, La.
"I'm waiting and praying," Geraldine Thomas told The Associated Press in New Orleans. "I just know everything is going to be all right."
Thomas, who works as a mail carrier and who oversees the payroll department in the command, was sent to Kuwait over the summer, his wife said.
The other soldier was identified by relatives as Sgt. Charles Ellis, also of Lake Charles. His mother-in-law, Chris Guidry, said the Army had notified his wife, Melanie Ellis, 25. "She's been talking with nurses to get an update on his conditions." Guidry said the two have been married for four years and have a 4-year-old daughter.
The Kuwait government has condemned the shooting, and insisted it would not undermine military cooperation between the two countries.
Security for U.S. forces has been significantly tightened in Kuwait following a series of incidents.
On Oct. 8, Islamic extremists attacked U.S. forces in Kuwait as they conducted training exercises, killing a Marine and wounding another. The attackers were shot and killed by other Marines. U.S. and Kuwaiti officials have played down several other incidents in which gunshots were heard near American soldiers, blaming hunters in some cases.