Suicide bombers carried out a bold attack on the world's largest oil processing facility but were stopped from breaking in by guards who fired on their cars, exploding both vehicles and killing the attackers.
Al-Qaeda purportedly claimed responsibility for Friday's attack, the first on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. The assault raised speculation that the militants were adopting the tactics of insurgents across the border in Iraq, where the oil industry has been repeatedly targeted.
The al-Qaeda terror group said two of its militants carried out the suicide attack. The claim was posted on a Web site frequently used by terror groups.
This "is part of the project to rid the Arabian Peninsula of the infidels," the statement read.
Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi quickly announced that the attack "did not affect operations" and that Abqaiq operations and exports "continued to operate normally." The huge Abqaiq processing facility near the Persian Gulf prepares about two-thirds of the country's oil output for export, making it a crucial link in getting Saudi crude to the market.
spike in prices
Crude oil futures spiked more than US$2 a barrel amid fears militants would again target the vital industry. Light sweet crude for April delivery surged as high as US$63.25 a barrel before settling at US$62.91, an increase of US$2.37 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude futures for April delivery jumped US$2.06 to US$62.60 on London's ICE Futures exchange.
The attack in Abqaiq, about 40km inland from Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast, took place at about 3pm -- several hours after the weekly prayers on Friday, a day off for Saudis though the facility was in operation.
At least two militants were killed in the explosions, and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television reported two security guards also died. Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Mansour al-Turki could not confirm the deaths of the security guards, but said two were critically wounded with potentially lethal injuries.
The assault began when two cars tried to drive through the gates of the outermost of three fences surrounding the processing facility, al-Turki told reporters.
Al-Arabiya reported that the attackers' cars bore the logo of Aramco, the state oil company that owns the facility.
Guards shot at the cars, and both vehicles exploded, al-Turki said. The explosions caused a fire that was quickly controlled, the oil minister said.
Guards then battled for two hours with two other militants outside the facility, said a Saudi journalist who arrived at the scene soon after the explosion.
Saudi Arabia has been waging a successful three-year crackdown on al-Qaeda's branch in the kingdom. Security forces have killed or captured most of the branch's known top leaders, most recently in gunbattles in December, after the militants launched a campaign in 2003 to overthrow the US-allied royal family with a string of attacks.
There have long been fears militants would target oil facilities, but in the past they have targeted foreigners working in the industry rather than infrastructure.
"In Iraq they zeroed in on oil, and this appears to be a creeping process, since it is happening in Saudi Arabia," said Youssef Ibrahim, a Dubai-based political risk analyst with the Strategic Energy Investment Group.