ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia - Suicide bombers in explosives-laden cars attacked the world's largest oil processing facility Friday, but were prevented from breaking through the gates when guards opened fire on them, causing the vehicles to explode, officials said.
The Saudi oil minister said the blast "did not affect operations" at the Abqaiq facility, denying an earlier report on Al-Arabiya television that the flow of oil was halted briefly after a pipeline was damaged.
The facility "continued to operate normally. Export operations continued in full," the minister, Ali Naimi, said in a statement.
The price of oil jumped by more than $1.20 on world markets as they heard of the attack. The April delivery price of Nymex sweet light crude, the U.S. benchmark, rose $1.26 to $61.80. The European benchmark, Brent crude, leaped $1.21 to $61.75 for April delivery.
It was the first attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia - and it targeted one of the kingdom's most important. The huge Abqaiq processing facility near the Gulf coast handles around two-thirds of the country's oil output, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Intelligence Agency.
Saudi Arabia has been waging a fierce three-year crackdown on al-Qaida militants, who launched a campaign in 2003 aimed at overthrowing the royal family with a string of attacks - mostly targeting foreigners. In May 2004, militants attacked oil company offices in two cities. There was no immediate word on who was behind the attack.
The attack occurred at about 3 pm, several hours after the weekly prayers on Friday, a day off for Saudis, though the facility was in operation.
Two cars tried to drive through the gates of the outer fence of the heavily secured, sprawling facility, which has three rows of security fences, Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press.
Guards opened fire on the cars, and both vehicles exploded, al-Turki said. He said two guards were critically wounded.
But there were varying reports on the details. A Saudi journalist who arrived at the scene soon after the explosion said only one car exploded and that the guards killed two people in a second car before it blew up.
Guards then battled for two hours with two other militants outside the facility, the reported told AP. He said he saw workers repairing a pipeline.
Al-Naimi, the oil minister, said "security forces and Aramco security officials managed to thwart a terrorist attack against" the installation. He said the attack caused "a small fire" but it was brought under control and did not affect operations.
The attack came in a largely Shiite area amid an uproar over the bombing earlier this week against a major Shiite shrine in Iraq.
But suspicions in the Abqaiq attack quickly fell on al-Qaida-linked militants. The attack came despite a string of victories for Saudi security forces in their fight against al-Qaida's branch in the kingdom. It also came several weeks after the Feb. 3 escape of 23 al-Qaida militants from a prison in the Yemeni capital, San'a, though there was no immediate indication they were involved.
It raised fears militants adopted a new tactic - trying to emulate Iraqi insurgents, who have succeeded in hobbling that country's oil industry with sabotage and attacks, said Dubai-based political risk analyst Youssef Ibrahim of the Strategic Energy Investment Group.
"In Iraq they zeroed in on oil and this appears to be a creeping process, since it is happening in Saudi Arabia," Ibrahim said.
With over 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a quarter of the world's total, Saudi Arabia is the top foreign supplier to the United States and is the main source of liquidity in the world market.
Saudi Arabia maintains crude oil production capacity of around 10.5-11.0 million barrels a day, and claims that it is "easily capable" of producing up to 15 million bbl/d in the future and maintaining
The Abqaiq facility processes about 5-7 million barrels a day.
On May 1 2004, attackers stormed the offices of Houston-based oil company in the western Saudi oil hub of Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi before Saudi security forces killed the attackers. Several weeks later, al-Qaida-linked gunmen stormed oil company compounds in Khobar, on the eastern coast, and took hostages. Twenty-two people, 19 of them foreigners, were killed by the time the siege ended.
In December 2004, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden for the first time called on militants to attack oil targets in the Gulf to stop the flow of oil to the West.
But no major attacks followed in the region. Some experts have believed that because al-Qaida's long-term goal is to run Saudi Arabia, it would do nothing to seriously jeopardize the oil industry on which the kingdom's wealth is based.