Security increases in Red Sea ports

Saturday, May 17, 2003

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Fear of terrorism -- along with roadblocks and heightened security -- spread from the Saudi capital to Jiddah on Friday after U.S. officials warned Americans of possible attacks in the busy Red Sea port.

Tamas Braun, a Hungarian who works for a Saudi bank, flew the 190 miles from Riyadh to Jiddah for a diving getaway after Monday night's deadly attacks on foreign residential compounds in the capital.

"It's like going out of the frying pan into the fire," said Braun. "I'm pretty freaked out and I'm seriously considering whether I should stay" in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi clerics, who are carefully guided by their government, widely condemned the attacks in Riyadh at Friday prayers. One leading cleric in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, said such attacks are "aggression, murder, terrorism and destruction."

U.S. officials said Thursday they had received a report that a "possible terrorist attack" might be carried out in Jiddah's al-Hamra district. They urged Americans to be vigilant.

The State Department said the report was unconfirmed. But some families of diplomats living in the district were moving out.

Monday's car bombings in Riyadh killed 34 people, including eight Americans. Officials have linked the attacks to al-Qaida and said the 15 attackers were Saudi.

Airport officials said there had been no sign of an exodus from Jiddah on Friday. They said security was tightened, with increased searches of departing passengers and their baggage.

Security officers at a roadblock outside could be seen checking the trunks and looking under the hoods of cars approaching the airport, particularly those whose passengers appeared to be Saudi or other Arabs.

But elsewhere in the city, families strolled the shoreline avenue as usual and security did not appear especially tight.

That contrasted with Riyadh, where soldiers and armed guards set up checkpoints, searched cars and quizzed drivers by the hundreds. Bumper-to-bumper traffic caused by the security checks stretched for miles in the capital.

Speaking in Washington on Friday, Adel al-Jubeir, a Saudi foreign policy adviser, said the Saudi government would seek to bring down al-Qaida.

"We're both in the cross-hairs of this organization. We have never had as close, or as strong, a cooperative effort between our two countries as we have now," al-Jubeir said. "Have we failed? Yes. On Monday, we failed. We will learn from this mistake, we will ensure it never happens again."

FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters in Washington the initial Saudi inquiry into the blasts has been "thorough and expeditious," adding the FBI's role will be to assist -- not take over -- the investigation. An FBI team was in Riyadh.

The car bombings drew sharp criticism at Muslim prayers.

Sheik Saleh bin Abdullah bin Humaid, who delivered Friday's sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, described the perpetrators as "saboteurs who aim at the high trees to bring down the best fruits.

"This act is aggression, murder, terrorism and destruction. It is the killing of life and the spilling of innocent blood. It is a cheap path, a crime motivated by misdirected thoughts and crooked principles," bin Humaid said.

The imam of a mosque in Oraija, one of poorest districts in Riyadh, also spoke out against the bombings.

"Those who conducted these acts are nonbelievers," Sheik Yousef al-Aamer told worshippers. "They have attacked Muslims who are their own people and people of other faiths who are innocent and could not defend themselves. Hellfire awaits them."

Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network tries to play on religious sentiment, vowing to rid Saudi Arabia of any Western influence.

Saudi officials have faced past criticism for doing too little to combat militancy ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks, which also were blamed on al-Qaida. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaida "has always had the Saudi government in their sights," said Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest in London.

Targeting foreigners working in the kingdom amounts to "economic sabotage," he said. "They are plotting the downfall of the Saudi royal family."

Saudi Arabia is home to 6 million expatriate workers, including about 35,000 Americans and 30,000 Britons, many of whom work in the oil, defense and medical industries.

Editor's Note: AP Writer Donna Abu-Nasr contributed to this report from Riyadh.

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