RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - After killing at least 22 mostly foreign civilians and trapping dozens of people in an 25-hour hostage standoff, three Islamist militants managed yesterday to steal a car, disappear into rush-hour traffic and slip out of the grip of hundreds of Saudi commandos .
The men, who authorities said used hostages as human shields to escape, were still missing early this morning. Saudi security forces searched for the suspects around Khobar, an eastern oil hub and home to a vast community of foreign workers. One of the missing militants had been wounded fighting security forces, an official at the Ministry of Interior said.
Saudi Arabia was reeling as it counted the casualties of Saturday's shootouts and hostage crisis - four Saudis and an American were dead, along with workers from Asia, Africa and Europe.
A total of 25 people were wounded in an attack that delivered another shock to the kingdom's oil industry and the large expatriate community that keeps the crude flowing.
Saudi officials said commandos captured the ringleader of the group who they said was on the authorities' wanted list before the attack.
Responding to analysts' fears that insecurity could imperil the oil kingdom, officials insisted yesterday that the government can protect its oil interests. The attack will not rattle Saudi eagerness to increase oil output to drive high crude prices back down, Saudi officials said. The Saudi proposal to increase production will be discussed at the OPEC summit in Beirut, Lebanon, this week.
Early this morning, Saudi investigators tried to unravel puzzling details in the latest attack. It wasn't clear why the militants stormed oil compounds so early in the day, when typically few workers would be at work.
Saudi officials could not explain why most of the American hostages, presumably some of the most imperiled captives, were set free, or how the militants managed to hide themselves in a region thick with Saudi forces.
In an audiotape posted on a Web site friendly to Islamic militants, a speaker who identified himself as an important al-Qaida leader claimed responsibility for the attack.
The voice on the tape introduced himself as Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Muqrin - the fugitive accused by authorities of heading al-Qaida's operations in the Arabian Peninsula - and bragged of dragging a Westerner's body through the streets.
"The holy warriors didn't leave any of the hostages alive," the tape boasted. "All those infidels and crusaders who were in their hands were liquidated."
The tape criticized the Saudi government for providing the United States with oil "at the cheapest prices according to their masters' wish, so that their economy does not collapse." The insurgency would continue, the speaker warned, until the "crusaders are expelled from the land of Islam."
The violence erupted shortly after dawn Saturday, when gunmen clad in military uniforms shot their way through a pair of oil-industry compounds for foreign workers. They paused in the streets long enough to fatally shoot an Egyptian child on his way to school, and reportedly dragged the body of a British worker behind the bumper of their car.
Next, the gunmen tried to plow a bomb-rigged car into the Oasis resort complex, but the explosion didn't go off as planned, the Interior Ministry said. Instead, they scaled the compound wall and rampaged through the villas and high rises, firing guns, tossing grenades and taking hostages.
In Saudi Arabia, public support for the Islamic militants has eroded over the past year of bloodshed, as bombs and shootouts increasingly targeted Muslims, Arabs and Saudis instead of foreign "infidels." In Saturday's attack, assailants apparently attempted to avoid killing Muslims. Many witnesses reported that the gunmen were trying to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims.
The militants released five Lebanese hostages almost immediately Saturday. Abdul Salam al-Hakawati, a 38-year-old Lebanese corporate financial officer, said a gun-toting man told him: "We only want to hurt Westerners and Americans. Can you tell us where we can find them here?"
By dawn yesterday, nine of the hostages had been killed, and some Saudi reports indicated that their throats had been slashed. A Saudi official said he didn't have any information about the reports, but added that one man had died from a stab wound in the neck.
Saudi commandos stormed the resort compound and freed the hostages, including hundreds of people who hadn't been taken custody but were cowering in their homes while the gun battles raged. Traumatized witnesses were led away from the scene.
Saudi officials said they captured the leader of the militant group, who is on Saudi Arabia's list of wanted militants. But his three comrades escaped. There was no word on how many people were killed during the rescue raid, and how many Saudi troops died fighting the militants.
Saudi forces "realized they were killing the hostages, so they had to go in and storm the building," said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador in London. "The three escapees used a number of hostages as human shields; that's how they got away. They just had people around them at gunpoint and got into a car and fled."
The strike in Khobar brought a new wave of revulsion among Saudi leaders.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, issued a statement condemning the attacks as "a cowardly and despicable act of murder."
"These terrorists have no respect for human life and no regard for the principles of Islam," he said.
In Washington, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, Nail al-Jubeir, told CNN that the "intent was to cripple the world economy by sending the message that foreigners are not safe inside Saudi Arabia," he said, also dismissing the notion that the kingdom cannot protect its people.
"It does not take much to come into a building with a rifle and shoot innocent people," he said, comparing the attack to a drive-by shooting. "Unfortunately it is very difficult to guard against."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.