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Al-Qaeda owns up Saudi oil plant attack

It was the first major strike by militants in Saudi Arabia since suicide bombers tried to storm the Interior Ministry in Riyadh in Dec 2004.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2006 09:26 IST

Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for Friday's attack on a Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, when security forces fired at suicide bombers trying to storm the world's biggest oil processing plant.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said oil and gas output was unaffected by the "terrorist attempt" -- the first direct strike on a Saudi oil target since Al-Qaeda militants launched attacks aimed at toppling Saudi Arabia's pro-Western monarchy in 2003.

In a statement posted on a website often used by militants, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's group said two of its members carried out the operation.

"With grace from God alone, hero mujahideen from the squadron of Sheikh Osama bin Laden succeeded today...in penetrating a plant for refining oil and gas in the town of Abqaiq in the eastern part of the peninsula, and then allowed two car bombs in driven by two martyrdom seekers," it said.

It said the raid was within the framework of efforts by Al-Qaeda to prevent the theft of Muslims' wealth by "crusaders and Jews" and to force "infidels" out of the peninsula.

Oil prices jumped $2 a barrel on news of the attack in the world's largest oil exporter, which came a year after bin Laden urged his supporters to hit Gulf oil targets.

In Abqaiq, a guard manning an outer gate of the facility said security forces were combing the plant in search of any militants hiding there. "The security situation is still unstable," said the guard, ushering people away.

Saudi security adviser Nawaf Obaid said security forces fired on three cars at the outer gates of the Abqaiq facility, 1.5 km from the main entrance.

Packed with explosives

One car was carrying gunmen and two others, packed with explosives, rammed the gates, he said. All the attackers were killed. Security sources in Riyadh said four militants and two security officers died and two other officers were wounded.

Mohammad al-Merri, a relative of one of the officers killed, said the militants were able to penetrate the first checkpoint leading to the facility. "They opened fire and killed two officers after the guards at the second checkpoint became suspicious of them," he said in Abqaiq.

Security sources said the blast after the shootout slightly injured eight workers, including some from the Indian subcontinent.

Dubai-based Al Arabiya television said the attackers used cars bearing the logo of Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco.

Residents said they heard the blast from about two km (more than a mile) away, then saw smoke rising from the site.

Naimi, quoted by the Saudi Press Agency, said a small fire broke out after the explosion but was quickly brought under control.

It was the first major strike by militants in Saudi Arabia since suicide bombers tried to storm the Interior Ministry in Riyadh in December 2004.

Most vulnerable point

Most Saudi oil is exported from the Gulf via the huge producing, pumping and processing facility at Abqaiq, also known locally as Baqiq, in the mainly Shi'ite Eastern Province.

The prospect of an attack on Saudi crude facilities has deeply worried nations reliant on Saudi oil, which makes up one-sixth of the world's exports, or 7.5 million barrels a day.

Former Middle East CIA field officer Robert Baer has described Abqaiq as "the most vulnerable point and most spectacular target in the Saudi oil system."

Aramco says it has the tightest security at all its oil plants, including helicopters, cameras, motion detectors and thousands of armed guards.

"The security measures at the oil facilities are better than at the royal palaces," said Al-Qaeda expert Fares bin Houzam.

Abqaiq handles crude pumped from the giant Ghawar field and ships it off to terminals at Ras Tanura -- the world's biggest offshore oil loading facility -- and Juaymah. It also pumps oil westwards across the kingdom to Red Sea export terminals.

"Abqaiq is the world's most important oil facility," said Gary Ross, CEO at PIRA Energy consultancy in New York. "This just emphasises fears over global oil supply security when we're already facing major ongoing risks in Nigeria, Iran and Iraq."

Officials say about 144 foreigners and Saudis, including security forces, and 120 militants have died in militant attacks and clashes with police since May 2003, when Al-Qaeda suicide bombers hit three Western housing compounds in Riyadh.

First Published: Feb 25, 2006 09:26 IST