A powerful truck bomb tore through apartment buildings at a U.S. Air Force complex on Tuesday, killing 23 Americans and injuring more than 300, officials said. President Clinton vowed, “The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished.”
Declaring, “America takes care of its own,” Clinton dispatched an FBI team to assist in the investigation.
The Air Force put the death toll at 23 Americans. At least 105 other Americans sustained serious injuries, and 240 were treated and released. All of the dead and injured were Americans, Pentagon officials said.
The explosion hit a U.S. military housing area at the edge of a Saudi base near Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia. It ripped the front off an eight-story apartment building housing American servicemen, and punched a crater 35 feet deep and 85 feet across.
A U.S. airman in a security observation tower had reported a fuel truck outside the compound as suspicious. When a Saudi officer approached the truck, two men jumped out, got into a white car and drove off, a senior Defense Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Authorities tried to evacuate two apartment buildings, the official said. But the bomb went off before people could get out.
“I heard a deafening noise and then the windows shattered and the walls fell in,” said Staff Sgt. Tyler Christie, slightly injured in the blast.
“People were running everywhere,” Christie, 31, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., told The Associated Press by telephone.
A building across from the base was all but destroyed, and police cars and ambulances filled the streets around the compound of modern concrete high rises.
Glass from shattered shop windows and car windscreens covered the streets for several blocks in all directions.
“We thought it was the end of the world,” said Walid, a 22-year-old Saudi who was walking nearby.
Hundreds of people rushed out of buildings into the streets.
“Some were crying,” said Walid, who refused to give his last name. “Some just sat on the ground and held their ears.”
Security was tightened on the nearby causeway linking the Persian Gulf coastal city of Dhahran to the tiny island state of Bahrain.
The death toll made it the worst terrorist blast involving Americans in the Middle East since the 1983 bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 American servicemen.
Tuesday’s explosion occurred less than a month after the Saudis beheaded four Muslim militants convicted of setting off a car bomb last Nov. 13 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.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility in the new bombing.
Besides the U.S. Air Force personnel living in the housing area, there were Army soldiers who operate a Patriot air defense unit and a signals battalion.
British, French and Saudi troops are based there as well.
The Defense Department official who described the incident to reporters stressed that the information on casualties was preliminary and that the totals could climb.
The official said a series of suspicious incidents had been reported in the area over the past several months, and that security measures had been tightened as a result. He described the incidents as cases of cars driving slowly by, or stopping briefly - all of which he said were not considered serious.
The explosion occurred about 35 yards from the nearest apartment building, the official said. There was no word on the type of bomb, but the official said it may have weighed as much as 5,000 pounds.
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 on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran.
At the State Department in Washington, spokesman Glyn Davies said a tanker truck was driven to the northeast corner of the compound and the occupants fled.
“Moments afterward, the explosion occurred,” he said.
Clinton said, “The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists. If that is the case, like all Americans I am outraged by it.”
Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, at a campaign stop in Cleveland, condemned the attack and offered his “heartfelt hopes and sympathies to the families of those who may have been injured.”
Clinton spoke tersely and angrily. “Let me say again, we will pursue this,” he said. “… Those who did it must not go unpunished,” he said.
Officials at the Pentagon said the Air Force’s 4404th Air Wing is based at the site. At least 2,000 Americans are stationed there.
Included in the 4404th Wing are two fighter units: the 79th Fighter Wing from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., which flies F-16 fighters, and the 33rd Fighter Wing from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which flies F-15 strike fighters. The planes help enforce U.N. no-fly zones over Iraq.
Relatives of bombing victims can call 1-800-253-9276 for more information. The Air Force advises the number is for family members only.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: McChord crews at base Twenty-one airmen from McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma are assigned to the air base in Dhahran, Saudia Arabia, that was bombed Tuesday. About 100 Fairchild airmen are temporarily stationed about 200 miles away from the Dhahran base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The identities of the bombing victims had not been released late Tuesday.
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