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Suicide bombers attack the world's largest oil facility in Saudi Arabia

Al Qaeda purported to claim responsibility; operations not affected

ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia -- Suicide bombers carried out a bold attack on the world's largest oil processing facility yesterday but were stopped from breaking in by guards who fired on their cars, causing both vehicles to explode and killing the attackers.

Al Qaeda purportedly claimed responsibility for the 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.

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.

Al Qaeda said two of its militants carried out the suicide attack. The claim was posted on a website frequently used by terror groups, but there was no way to check its authenticity. This ''is part of the project to rid the Arabian Peninsula of the infidels," the statement read.

Crude oil futures spiked more than $2 a barrel amid fears militants would again target the vital industry. Light sweet crude for April delivery surged as high as $63.25 a barrel before settling at $62.91, an increase of $2.37 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude futures for April delivery jumped $2.06 to $62.60 on London's ICE Futures exchange.

The attack in Abqaiq, about 25 miles inland from Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast, took place at about 3 p.m. -- 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. Lieutenant General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, could not confirm the deaths of the security guards but said two were critically wounded.

The assault began when two cars tried to drive through the gates of the outermost of three fences surrounding the processing facility, Turki said. 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, 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. He said he saw workers repairing a pipeline. For three more hours, security forces searched the surrounding area.

Police set up roadblocks leading in and out of the town.

The facility lies several miles from a residential area where several thousand expatriate workers -- including Americans, Europeans, and Arabs -- live. Turki said no foreigners were injured.

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 gun battles 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 attack 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.

Iraqi terrorist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, heads Al Qaeda's branch in that country. The two countries share a border, which militants are known to cross to join the Iraqi insurgency.

Saudi Arabia has more than 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a quarter of the world's total. It currently puts out about 9.5 million barrels per day, or 11 percent of global consumption.

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