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Saudis offer little on gunmen's escape

Won't say if attackers were allowed to flee

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi authorities hunted yesterday for three suspected Al Qaeda militants who used hostages as human shields to escape after a weekend assault on a residential complex that killed 22 people, mostly foreign oil industry workers.

The attackers fled Khobar to nearby Dammam, where they abandoned their truck for a car commandeered at gunpoint and drove off with police in pursuit, a police official said yesterday.

A fourth militant -- described as the ringleader -- was captured Sunday after helicopter-borne Saudi commandos raided the upscale Oasis compound, where the gunmen had taken dozens of foreigners hostage in a hotel a day earlier.

The captured suspect and one of the fugitives were wounded, but it wasn't immediately clear how seriously.

It was the worst terror attack on Saudi soil in a year and the second this month to target its oil industry.

Bloodstains, glass shards, bullet holes, and evidence of grenade blasts scarred the sealed-off Oasis resort complex yesterday, according to an employee.

The official death toll from the entire 25-hour siege was 22, including eight Indians, three Filipinos, three Saudis, two Sri Lankans, an American, a Briton, an Italian, a Swede, a South African, and a 10-year-old Egyptian. Twenty-five people of various nationalities were injured, and security forces evacuated 242 people from the Oasis, including residents not held hostage but trapped inside.

Thus far, the dozens of surviving hostages have kept away from the media, and Saudi authorities haven't provided many details on how the standoff ended. Saudi security stormed the building early Sunday after they found out that the hostages were being harmed, said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to Saudi Arabia's embassy in London. "Intervention then became necessary," Khashoggi said.

An Interior Ministry statement said the three who escaped used hostages as human shields until they were able to commandeer a vehicle and flee, leaving the captives behind.

An Oasis employee who had been inside the heavily guarded compound assessing damage yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity, relayed an account from a freed hostage who said security forces allowed the attackers to flee because they were killing hostages.

A Saudi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not directly address whether the militants were allowed to escape. But he said: "Our main priority was the hostages, and those guys who ran away, we know how to find them."

In the evening, several police cars surrounded a mosque in Khobar after police got word that suspected terrorists were inside the mosque. A policeman said two people had been detained on suspicion of having terrorist connections. He would not elaborate.

Lawyer Ibrahim al-Yami, whose office is across from the mosque, said he saw police take away the mosque's muezzin and his wife. Yami said he heard one shot fired inside the mosque.

The attack began Saturday morning, when militants in military-style dress opened fire inside two oil industry office compounds. They then moved up the street to the Oasis.

Saudi commandos eventually freed 41 hostages, the Interior Ministry said. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Turki al-Faisal, told the BBC that the commandos found bodies of nine hostages inside.

Nizar Hijazeen, a Jordanian software engineer who hid in one of the hotel's rooms throughout the ordeal, said he saw five bodies scattered around the hotel after it was over. "All the bodies appeared to have been shot," he said.

A statement Sunday attributed to Al Qaeda's chief in the Saudi region, Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, said the violence aimed to punish the kingdom for its oil dealings with the United States and to drive "crusaders" from "the land of Islam."

Saudi Arabia relies on 6 million expatriate workers to run its oil industry and related sectors.

The attack in the kingdom's oil industry hub was expected to have some effect on world oil markets, where prices have been at new highs, but analysts have said that jitters shouldn't be too strong since no hard oil facilities were targeted.

Four US schools in the eastern province closed the past two days because of the violence, according to their websites.

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