February 24, 2006

Suicide bombers attack Saudi refinery

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - Two cars exploded at the gates of Saudi
Arabia's huge Abqaiq oil facility on Friday when security
forces fired on suicide bombers trying to storm the world's
biggest oil processing plant, Saudi officials said.

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.

"Security forces foiled an attempted suicide attack at the
Abqaiq refinery using at least two cars," an official said.

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

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

One car was carrying gunmen and two others, packed with
explosives, rammed the gates, he said. It was not clear how
many militants were involved in the attack, but all had been

A security source in Riyadh said four militants died.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told Saudi
state television that two members of the security forces were
critically wounded in the attack and six workers were lightly
injured. Security forces were combing the site for evidence.

"We have yet to determine the identity of the attackers. We
are currently checking DNA samples," Turki said.

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

Oil minister Naimi, quoted by the Saudi Press Agency, said
a small fire was quickly brought under control after the
incident which he said took place at 3.10 pm (1210 GMT).

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.


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

The prospect of a direct attack on Saudi crude facilities
has been a doomsday scenario for oil consumer nations heavily
reliant on Saudi oil. The kingdom accounts for around a sixth
of the world's oil exports, supplying 7.5 million barrels a

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."

But 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 those at the royal palaces," said al Qaeda expert Fares
bin Houzam. "The attack makes clear their (militants) ignorance
of Aramco's facilities."

Abqaiq handles crude pumped from the giant Ghawar field and
ships it off to terminals 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.

"It's not clear what damage there is but Abqaiq is the
world's most important oil facility," said Gary Ross, CEO at
PIRA Energy consultancy in New York.

"This just emphasizes fears over global oil supply security
when we're already facing major ongoing risks in Nigeria, Iran
and Iraq."

Officials say around 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 struck at three Western housing compounds in

The next year militants bombed a Saudi security building in
the capital, killed Western engineers in the Red Sea city of
Yanbu, and attacked oil company and housing compounds in the
Gulf city of Khobar.

Saudi officials say they have killed the most dangerous al
Qaeda leaders in the country and broken the back of their
insurgency, but that al Qaeda will remain a threat in the
kingdom for years.

"There had been concern that even though their capabilities
had diminished they still had the intent to launch attacks in
the kingdom," a U.S. counter-terrorism official said.

(Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Inal Ersan, Miral
Fahmy and Amil Khan in Dubai; Richard Mably and Peg Mackey in
London; Caroline Drees in Washington)