Al-Qaeda-linked militants killed at least nine Saudis and seven foreigners in a string of attacks in an oil-industry city Saturday, then took hostages and fled with security forces in hot pursuit.

Saudi security sources said an American, a Briton, an Egyptian, two Filipinos, an Indian and a Pakistani died in the attacks on foreigners’ compounds in the eastern city of Khobar, along with two Saudi civilians and seven security force members.

Saudi forces later stormed a housing compound where the militants had taken the hostages, a compound employee told Reuters. He gave no further details. Forces cordoned off the area, evacuated many civilians and shooting could be heard.

A Saudi Interior Ministry statement confirmed four gunmen had stormed an oil company and housing compounds and said security forces were "dealing with them as appropriate."

A statement purportedly from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network posted on Islamist Web sites claimed the attacks.

The group blamed for the September 2001 attacks on the United States has vowed to destabilise the US-allied monarchy and the world’s leading oil exporter.

Witnesses said a body had been dragged through the streets, apparently by militants, in the third attack against foreigners in less than a month in the birthplace of Islam. It appeared aimed at the crucial and in part Western-run oil industry.

Al Arabiya aired footage of a man with Western features, slumped in his car, apparently shot dead by the gunmen. It showed a charred car and a third blood-spattered vehicle.

The attack came two days after the top al Qaeda leader in the kingdom, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, issued a battle plan for urban guerrilla war, specifying steps militants needed to topple the royal family.

Meanwhile a Bloomberg News report from New York says: Crude oil futures rose yesterday for the first time in four sessions amid concern about terrorist attacks in the Middle East and major oil-consuming countries over the Memorial Day holiday.

Attacks on oil facilities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have resulted in price rises several times in the past two months. Terrorism concern has grown as US gasoline supplies lag behind year-earlier levels before the peak demand summer months.

"The security premium is still extant," John Kilduff, senior vice president of energy risk management at Fimat USA Inc in New York, said yesterday. "You’re going to see prices rise ahead of the holiday."

Crude oil for July delivery rose 44 cents, or 1.1 per cent, to settle at $39.88 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil reached $41.85 a barrel May 17, the highest since trading began in 1983. Prices were little changed this week and were up 40 per cent from a year earlier.

In London, the July Brent crude-oil futures contract rose 33 cents, or 0.9 per cent, to settle at $36.58 a barrel on the International Petroleum Exchange. Prices were up 0.2 per cent for the week and were 43 per cent higher than a year earlier.

Saudi Arabia said last week that it would boost oil production to 9 million barrels a day in June from 8.35 million barrels a day in May to bring down prices. The kingdom, which is OPEC’s biggest producer, also recommended that the group raise quotas.

"OPEC is clearly trying to signal that they want lower prices and will do what’s necessary to lower them," Kilduff said. "More oil is coming."
Increased Saudi shipments will come as refiners are struggling to boost US gasoline supplies before the summer driving season. About 10 per cent of the world’s crude oil goes into making gasoline for the US market.

Gasoline for June delivery rose 5.15 cents, or 3.7 per cent, to settle at $1.4367 a gallon in New York. Prices reached $1.47 May 20, the highest since the contract began trading in 1984. Futures were up 1.4 per cent this week and 64 per cent higher than a year ago.