JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Eight people were killed and eleven were injured during a gunbattle at the U.S. consulate in Jiddah Monday after Islamic terrorists hurled explosives at the gate of the heavily guarded compound, then forced their way into the main building.
Five non-American U.S. employees and three of the attackers were killed during the three-hour long crisis. Seven of the injured were in the hospital. Two other attackers were injured and arrested, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry (search).
The White House closely monitored the situation in Jiddah as President Bush started meeting with two Middle East leaders — Ghazi al-Yawer (search), the interim president of Iraq, and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"These attacks in Saudi Arabia remind us that terrorists are still on the move — they're interested in affecting the will of free countries — they want us to leave Saudi Arabia, they want us to leave Iraq, they want us to grow timid and weary in their attacks to kill," Bush said during a joint press conference Monday with al-Yawer.
"We will find out more about who caused these attacks," the president continued, thanking the Saudi government for responding quickly to the bombings and the Saudi security officials and U.S. Marines also on the scene. He said he's "confident" the Saudi government will share information gleaned from the captured bombers with the United States.
Al Qaeda to Blame?
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Saudi officials have blamed Al Qaeda (search) operatives for a series of attacks that have hit the desert kingdom in the past two years.
"This has the hallmarks of Al Qaeda but whether it’s a formal Al Qaeda cell doesn't matter ... it does appear to be a carefully planned attack, one that took quite a bit of organizational skill," Robert Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told FOX News.
On Islamic militant Web sites, contributors began hailing the attack even before it was over, with one person praising it as "destruction of a bastion of atheism."
"We were afraid about our brothers in the Arab peninsula, but this proves that they are well and sound, thank God," said the person who made the posting, referring to recent Saudi crackdowns on militants.
The attack occurred when a car with three militants pulled up behind a consular car to the first checkpoint of the consulate, according to officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington. When stopped and told to turn around, terrorists jumped out, began firing and throwing hand grenades. A second car with terrorists pulled up, two more terrorists ran out and started shooting as well.
The checkpoint, which is an open gate that controls traffic going toward the U.S. consular compound, is manned by Saudi National Guardsmen. Inside this area people drop off mail, pick up their passports, etc. The second gate is secured by U.S. Marines and houses the actual consulate. Technically, terrorists entered the compound, but never entered the secure area, Saudi embassy officials said.
As soon as firing was heard, the Marines locked down the main security area. Saudi special forces arrived within minutes, they were in the area on high alert, officials said. Saudi intelligence had "a sense that led us to increase [the] level of alert in Jiddah, in particular," officials said, and since the consulate could be a potential target, Saudi security forces were close by.
One of the terrorists called the local Saudi emergency service, similar to America's 911 service, and said: "We are al Fallujah Brigade, we have 15 hostages. Tell security forces not to enter the consulate, we have 17 hostages." Aware of the conflicting number of hostages, the U.S. and its Saudi counterparts worked out details of the operation and moved against the terrorists, according to the Saudi embassy.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki denied anyone was held hostage, but said the attackers did hurt those they came across in the courtyard area.
The operation to apprehend the terrorists took three minutes, 40 seconds. Fire coming out of one of the buildings was caused by a hand grenade but there was no car bomb involved in the incident.
Saudi security forces, including snipers, could be seen on the rooftops around the consulate compound, and helicopters hovered overhead.
"This is a heavily fortified compound but it's not impervious. It's not Ft. Knox," Jordan said. "I think there's a lot of symbolism in being able to penetrate this facility."
In Riyadh (search), U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said two local staff members were injured, but all American staff were safe.
"We have accounted for all Americans in the compound in Jiddah and none of them are being held hostage," Kalin said. "We have a local work force that was on duty and we are still in the process of accounting for [them]."
Kalin said four of the five employees killed held administrative jobs and one was a private contract guard on the consulate's payroll. Four other embassy workers — all hired locally — were hospitalized, Kalin said.
Asked about hostages, Kalin said, "The investigation of the Saudi authorities is ongoing and the embassy has no comment on this report at this time."
About 9,000 Americans live in the Jiddah area. As a precaution, Kalin said, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Dhahran (search) were closed to the public.
The statement by a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, said a "stray bunch" — a reference to Islamic militants — threw explosives at the gate of the consulate, then entered. Saudi security forces engaged the attackers, "killing three aggressors, and two were captured after they were hit," the statement said.
"The situation was brought under control," the statement said. It gave no further details.
Area residents spoke of seeing Saudi forces enter the consulate shortly before a fierce gunbattle was heard inside. A short time later, the gunfire stopped.
Saudi security officials said two security guards at the gate of consulate were wounded, one of them seriously, after the attackers opened fire on them before entering the mission.
A Saudi health official said several people were injured and taken to a hospital.
Witnesses initially said they saw the attackers' car explode outside the consulate, located in the city's heart near the Red Sea coastline, but it was not immediately clear if a car bomb had been used or if the attackers had thrown explosives after driving the car up to the consulate.
Saudi security officials said the assailants shot at security guards at the consulate's gate, set off an explosion — using either a car bomb or grenades — and got into the compound. There, they said Saudi security guards engaged the attackers, but the attackers managed to seize hostages.
Al-Arabiya satellite television reported the attackers were believed to be carrying machine guns and hand grenades that were thought to have started a fire inside the compound. The fire was extinguished by helicopter, the report said.
"The magnitude of this assault on the consulate has taken all Jiddah residents by surprise," said Khaled al-Maeena, the editor of Arab News located in Jiddah who saw the smoke rising from the compound.
The building — like all U.S. diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia — has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year's series of bombings against targets housing foreigners.
The series of attacks started in 2003, when car bombs targeted three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine homicide bombers. Later that year, a homicide car bomb killed 17 people and wounded 122 at a compound for foreign workers in Riyadh.
Last May, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours. In another attack that month, militants stormed offices of Houston-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. (search) in Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All four attackers in Yanbu died in a shootout after an hour-long police chase in which they dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car.
In June, militants in Riyadh, the capital, kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr. (search), an engineer for a U.S. defense company.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.