June 26, 1996
Web posted at: 7:10 a.m. EDT (1110 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At least 19 Americans were killed when a powerful truck bomb ripped through apartment buildings at a military compound housing American, Saudi, French and British troops near the Saudi Arabian city of Dhahran. Currently 64 people are hospitalized, one in serious condition. The Pentagon says about 200 other people were treated for their injuries and released.
A grim-faced U.S. President Bill Cinton said the explosion "appears to be the work of terrorists" and vowed to bring those responsible to justice. "The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished," he said.
Clinton said an FBI team was to fly to Dhahran to assist Saudi Arabian authorities. FBI sources told CNN they will send explosives experts and evidence response teams along with regular investigative agents to examine the bombing.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Reuter News Agency he would go to Saudi Arabia Wednesday and visit servicemen wounded in the blast. Christopher was already in the Middle East for negotiations with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
A British Defense Ministry spokesman told the British Press Association that no British soldiers were wounded. It was not immediately known if there were French or Saudi casualties.
No group or individual claimed responsibility for the bombing, nor was there any prior warning, U.S. officials said. They said the blast had the hallmarks of a deliberate bombing.
The explosion all but destroyed one building and blasted a crater 35 feet deep and 85 feet across. Pentagon sources said judging by the impact, the truck could have been laden with as much as 5,000 pounds of explosives.
Animation of Truck Explosion (147K)
It is the deadliest bombing involving U.S. citizens in the Middle East since the 1983 Beirut attack that killed 241 Americans.
The Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, told CNN that Saudi Arabia was offering a reward of 10 million riyal (about U.S.$3 million) for information leading to the capture of those responsible for the bombing.
A statement issued by the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, said the truck exploded outside the northern fence of the Khobar Towers apartment complex at King Abdul Aziz Air Base in Al Khobar.
How it happened
U.S. government sources told CNN two men driving a fuel tanker truck attempted to enter the apartment complex, but were prevented by military security. The two men then left their truck along the northeast fence line of the compound and drove away in a separate car, sources said. A few minutes later, the truck exploded.
Saudi state television quoting an Interior Ministry source, said the explosion took place at 10.30 p.m. (1930 GMT, 1530 EDT).
An attempt was made to evacuate two apartment buildings, said a senior Defense Department official, but the blast went off before people could get out, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"I heard a deafening noise and then the windows shattered and the walls fell in," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyler Christie, who was slightly injured in the blast.
"People were running everywhere," Christie, 31, of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, told The Associated Press by telephone. "A few buildings were destroyed."
Tuesday's explosion occurred less than a month after the Saudis beheaded four Muslim militants convicted of setting off a car bomb last November at a U.S.-run military training facility, killing five Americans and two Indians.
The men, all Saudi Arabians, were executed despite threats from underground extremists to attack U.S. interests in the kingdom if the four were punished.
The 2,900 Americans at the Saudi air base include pilots who help enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, air ground crews, Patriot anti-missile operators, and communications specialists.
They and the other forces from Britain and France were all residual personnel from the 1991 Gulf War military force.
Officials said the complex was on a heightened state of alert because of suspicious activities noticed in recent months, such as cars slowing down as they drove outside. The security perimeter of the complex had been extended.