RIYADH (Reuters) - Three French expatriates working in Saudi Arabia were shot dead during a desert trip on Monday in what appeared to be the first militant attack on foreigners in three years.
An Interior Ministry statement said gunmen in a car fired at a group of nine French nationals after stopping them near Medina in the west of the vast desert country.
“They are all residents who work in Riyadh and who had gone on a desert trip,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told Saudi television, adding the attackers escaped after apparently stalking the group as they camped overnight.
The French Foreign Ministry said one was a teacher and two others worked with French firm Schneider Electric.
Islamic militants swearing allegiance to al Qaeda launched a violent campaign to topple the U.S.-allied Saudi monarchy in 2003, with suicide bomb attacks on foreigners and government installations including the oil industry.
There had been no major attacks targeting foreigners since 2004, when the violence was at its height. Frenchman Laurent Barbot was shot dead in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah by suspected al Qaeda militants in September 2004.
The Saudi wing of al Qaeda resurfaced earlier this month threatening new attacks on Westerners in the kingdom.
The ministry spokesman said the tourist group, thought to number 26, had split into two after a night in the desert near Medina, with some returning to Riyadh and the nine French nationals staying behind because some of them were Muslims who hoped to make a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Western diplomats said the group may also have visited the historical site of Madain Saleh, north of Medina.
The government statement said two men died at the scene and a third died later in hospital. One other is still in hospital in Medina. Saudi television said initially four had died.
Officials said the attackers had singled out the men in the group, which included women and children.
In Paris, President Jacques Chirac called for action to find the attackers and ensure foreigners’ safety.
“He strongly condemns this hateful act,” a statement said, calling on authorities to “track down, try and punish those guilty of the act and guarantee the safety of our compatriots.”
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the top government-appointed cleric, said Saudis should condemn the attack. “All citizens have a responsibility to warn against this (kind of) crime and condemn it,” he said on state television.
The last major attack was in February last year when militants attempted to storm a major oil facility at Abqaiq in the east of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
Officials say more than 136 militants and 150 foreigners and Saudis, including security forces, have died in the violence which officials had said had been stamped out thanks to toughened security measures and a powerful publicity campaign.
The Saudi wing of al Qaeda recently threatened to renew its campaign of violence.
“For some time now, we have been preparing some quality attacks which will shake the foundations of the crusaders (Westerners) in the Arabian Peninsula,” said the group’s Web magazine, reappearing after a nearly two-year absence.
A senior Western diplomat told Reuters last week that Saudi authorities had taken impressive measures to crush the mini-insurgency in 2003 and 2004, but that the underlying causes were still there for it to re-emerge at any point.
“They ran a successful campaign, they act on intelligence and never let the grass grow under the terrorists’ feet,” the diplomat said. “But they still have got a long way to go on winning hearts and minds.”
Analysts say the causes include widespread radical Islamist ideology in Saudi Arabia, which imposes a strict form of Sunni Islam as state orthodoxy, and anger at the inability of Arab and Muslim governments to challenge U.S. foreign policy widely seen as unbalanced and favoring Israel.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Francois Murphy in Paris