U.S. Told Saudis to Let Al-Qaida Gunmen Escape Says Official
Saudi authorities gave safe passage to three al-Qaida gunmen after the they killed 10 of the hostages they were holding at a hotel in the oil hub of Khobar, a senior security official said.
The Saudi official said upon hearing hostages had been killed, US officials advised the Saudis that letting the militants go would avert a bigger catastrophe.
The US embassy in Riyadh did not have immediate comment on the Saudi official's account, which dovetailed with witness accounts.
Officially, the Saudi Interior Ministry has said the three used hostages as human shields to escape Saudi commandos on Sunday and a fourth attacker, said to be the ringleader, was captured.
The official said the three walked away at about 2:20 a.m. on Sunday, hours before 80 commandoes landed on the roof of the hotel by helicopter and began knocking on the hostages' doors to tell them they were free to leave.
At 2:20 a.m., reporters less than a block away from the Oasis Compound housing the hotel saw bullets streaking over their heads from the direction of the complex. The official said that was machine gun fire from one of two accomplices who were in a car not far from the site and were covering the three men's escape.
The attackers walked across the compound, stole a van and fled Khobar to nearby Dammam, the official said. They then abandoned the vehicle for a car commandeered at gunpoint from a Saudi driver and drove off with police in pursuit.
The three left behind a fourth militant because they thought he was dead, the official said. Saudi authorities had reported the gunman they had in custody was wounded.
The escape of the three gunmen, who killed 22 people, including a Briton, in a shooting rampage that began at two oil industry office compounds and ended 25 hours later, has stunned Saudis and expatriates.
Many are wondering how the militants could have slipped away in an area bristling with hundreds of troops.
One reason the Saudi government has given a sketchy account of what happened is that it does not want to be seen as negotiating with terrorists.
The official said Saudi authorities at first turned down the gunmen's request for safe passage. But then the militants started killing hostages, the official said. He said the Americans, who were in consultation with the Saudis, advised them to let the men go.
Other Saudi officials have said four Americans who were staying at the hotel had taken refuge on the roof without the knowledge of the gunmen and were rescued a few hours before dawn.
He said the hostages were in contact with security forces by telephone, and the main concern was keeping their presence a secret from the militants.
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