RIYADH, 22 April 2004 — At least four people, including two security officers, were killed and 148 injured when a powerful car bomb devastated buildings of special security forces and the traffic department here yesterday. The vehicle exploded at a protective barrier outside the buildings, destroying dozens of other vehicles, damaging shops and property in a building across the road, and shattering windows over a wide area. The blast came six days after a terror alert from the US Embassy.
“Four people — two security men, a civilian employee and an 11-year old Syrian girl — were killed,” Saudi television reported, quoting an Interior Ministry official.
“The number of wounded reached 148, including 38 expatriates. Of those 103 have left hospital and 45 remain there, three among them in critical condition,” the ministry said.
Saudi leaders quickly vowed to root out the terrorists, who struck at the security forces buildings for the first time since a series of bombings began in Riyadh last year. “These criminal acts perpetrated by a deviant minority will be dealt with firmly until they are rooted out,” Crown Prince Abdullah, deputy premier and commander of the National Guard, told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a telephone conversation.
Interior Minister Prince Naif said the attack would not undermine the Kingdom’s police force. “Their morale is incredibly high,” the minister told reporters after visiting the injured policemen at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the capital. “Attacking security forces shows the bankruptcy of the terror cells, which we are determined to track down,” said Prince Naif.
Prince Naif confirmed that a large number of civilians had been injured in the blast. Arab News learned that the King Faisal Specialist Hospital alone had received 32 injured. Seven of them were admitted to the intensive care unit. The injured included the directors of traffic and operations departments.
Prince Naif said the Kingdom’s security forces were successful in preventing “tens of terrorist attacks”. He added that security forces were ready to confront any attacks.
Asked whether he believed there were any foreign forces behind the blast, the minister said: “We cannot say that.” Such attacks could happen in any country, he added.
He urged Saudis to cooperate with security forces in the fight against terror. “Every citizen is a member of the security force,” he said. He also urged terrorists to surrender for their own good.
Prince Naif warned those who support terrorists, especially through satellite channels and other media, saying they would be dealt with sternly. “They will be arrested, interrogated and handed over to justice,” he added. Asked whether he believed the bombing was a revenge attack on police for tracking down militants, the prince said: “Maybe. We cannot rule out that possibility.”
An injured police officer told the minister that the attack would only increase their resolve to finish off the criminals.
Prince Naif said security forces were continuing their efforts to hunt down suspected terrorists. “We’ll get them and hand them over to justice,” he added.
Riyadh Governor Prince Salman said he considered the bomb attack on the security buildings as an attack on Saudi people as a whole. “Police are part and parcel of our society.” He dismissed suggestions that the police had foiled other terrorist attacks yesterday. “Not at all,” he stated.
The governor reiterated the government’s resolve to fight religious extremism.
“We should stand united in the fight against these crimes,” he told Saudis.
Earlier in a brief statement, an Interior Ministry official said the driver of a car blew up the vehicle at 2 p.m. yesterday after being stopped from going into the headquarters of the traffic department.
“When the guards dealt with it as the situation dictates, the driver blew up the vehicle 30 meters from the gate,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the official as saying.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri condemned the attack.
Saudi television said children were among the injured but also showed uniformed security force personnel in hospital. “I was in the office when the blast happened,” said one bloodied and bruised man before breaking down in tears. Fires raged long after the blast, which left a deep crater and a street carpeted in debris from the shattered building. Dozens of blackened and twisted cars smoldered for hours and glass shards and concrete debris covered the tarmac.
Local people living nearby were shocked. “What can I say? We were sitting minding our own business in our homes when we felt the force of the explosion. We don’t know what happened. Houses fell on our children and women,” one man said. “What sin have we committed? These people don’t fear God.”
It was the sixth attempt to carry out car bomb attacks in the capital within a week. Security sources said five vehicles packed with explosives had been found and defused in recent days. “We succeeded in preventing five like this but this one got through,” an Interior Ministry source said.
The traffic department is one of several administrative buildings located on Al-Washm Street. Others include those charged with combating drugs and detecting explosives.
Witnesses told Arab News that body parts littered the ground as thick smoke poured from the front of the six-story building. Ambulance workers recovered them.
Police quickly moved in to hold back horrified onlookers and sealed off the Al-Washm area as the scale of the carnage emerged. A fleet of ambulances, sirens wailing, ferried off casualties.
The force of the blast ripped off the facade of the glass and steel security structure, leaving gutted offices open to the sky. Bars and sheets of twisted metal were scattered over the ground, forming a battle scene of rare violence.
The bomber was charred beyond recognition. “Cars parked near the site had their windows shattered or cracked as were the windows of apartments in nearby buildings,” one witness said.
The impact was also felt on share prices. The Tadawul share index dropped 2.9 percent.
The police were deployed to guard the King Saud Street branch of the Al Rajhi Banking and Investment Corporation where its ATM’s glass door was damaged. A thick pall of smoke blanketed the area cordoned off for rescue operations. Civil defense helicopters hovered overhead guiding rescue operations.
The injured, many of them from the security personnel, were admitted to the Riyadh Military Hospital, the King Abdul Aziz Medical City and the Central Hospital at Shumaisy.
Terrified residents of buildings in the area flooded out onto the streets. In some cases the police had to force back the crowds to allow ambulances, patrol cars and fire engines access to the blast site.
Speaking to Arab News, Adnan Jaber, a senior journalist of Al-Watan who lives in the area, said: “I was attending a seminar on investment opportunities for Australian businessmen at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce & Industry when I heard the explosion.
He continued: “My youngest son, Ahmed, was playing near a window. He had a lucky escape because his mother called him just as the window where he was sitting was shattered by the impact.” He added that all the window panes were broken and the explosion shook the building.
The explosion occurred during a visit to Riyadh by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, on a tour of Gulf states. A US Embassy spokesperson said there were no Americans among the casualties.
Last week, Washington ordered non-essential diplomats out of the Gulf state and warned Americans they should leave, citing reports of possible attacks on US and Western interests.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Saudi Arabia is waging a war on militants linked with the Al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin Laden, responsible for a spate of terror attacks in the Kingdom over the past months.
A series of suicide bombings targeting residential compounds in the capital in May and November last year killed 52 people, including several expatriates. The attacks were blamed on Al-Qaeda.
Saudi security forces discovered on Monday two cars laden with explosives, which were ready to be used in terror attacks in the capital, a security source said.
The discovery of the two vehicles, found in Arrumhiyah village 90 kilometers east of Riyadh, brought to five the number of car-bombs seized in Saudi Arabia within the past week.
After the two cars were found, security forces, backed by helicopters, combed the region searching for armed men who had managed to flee in a jeep.
An Interior Ministry official announced on Sunday the arrest of eight suspects linked to recent deadly clashes between militants and security forces and the booby-trapping of cars.
Security forces had also seized three vehicles packed with thousands of kilograms of explosives, including one they had been searching for since February.