MEDINA, Saudi Arabia -Feb. 27: Three French expatriates in Saudi Arabia were shot dead by masked gunmen on Monday and a fourth was seriously wounded near the Muslim holy city of Medina, officials and doctors said.
The four men were among a group of French residents of the capital Riyadh returning from a trip to the historical site of Madain Saleh in northwestern Saudi Arabia, a popular destination for Western expatriates.
French President Jacques Chirac expressed shock following the attack, the first in three months against Westerners in the oil-rich kingdom which was rocked by a spate of bombings and shootings blamed on suspected Al Qaeda militants starting in May 2003.
Chirac “firmly condemns this hateful act,” said a statement from the presidency that also offered condolences to the victims’ families.
Two of the victims died on the spot when the group of nine were attacked in a desert area some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Medina, the director of King Fahd hospital in Medina, Mutawakkel Faleh Hajjaj, told AFP.
A third man wounded in the attack was driven by his wife to a nearby medical centre but died there, Hajjaj said.
Women are banned from driving in conservative Saudi Arabia.
The 22-year-old son of one of the victims underwent surgery at the hospital to extract a bullet lodged in his lung and was critical but stable, he said.
Dr Khaldoun Mounla, medical counselor for the French consulate in the Red Sea city of Jeddah who rushed to Medina along with French diplomats, said that according to the account of one of the survivors, an undetermined number of hooded gunmen got off a jeep and opened fire on the men in the group, who had stopped to picnic on their way back from Madain Saleh.
Three women, including the mother of the critically wounded young man, an 11-year-old girl and a 14-year old boy were not targeted, he said.
Saudi security men were posted at the hotel in Medina where the survivors and French diplomats were spending the night.
A French diplomatic source earlier said that two people were wounded.
Chirac thanked Saudi local authorities for helping the victims and underscored “the importance that is accorded to shedding full light on this tragedy, to ensuring that the perpetrators are arrested, brought to justice and punished and to ensuring the security of our compatriots.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 French nationals live in Saudi Arabia, Mounla said.
The Saudi interior ministry said the victims were shot dead by gunmen in an unidentified vehicle on the road between Medina and the northwestern city of Tabuk.
“A group of French residents including four men, three women and two children came under fire from an unidentified car while on their way back from a trip and as they stopped in a desert area for rest,” it said in a statement.
The ministry said that some members of the group were planning to head towards the holy city of Mecca to perform the lesser pilgrimage or Umra, meaning that some of them were Muslims.
But a French diplomat told AFP that none of the members of the attacked group was Muslim.
The attack was the first to target Western expatriates since a Briton was wounded in a knife attack in November in the eastern industrial city of Jubail.
Laurent Barbot, a 45-year-old French engineer who worked for electronics group Thales in Jeddah, was shot dead in September 2004.
The same month, a British national was killed in a shooting in Riyadh. He worked for telecommunications company Marconi, which advises the Saudi national guard.
The attacks subsided after security forces launched a relentless crackdown on suspected sympathisers of Al Qaeda in the Gulf country, homeland of the network’s fugitive leader Osama bin Laden.
But gunfights between security forces and militants continue despite periods of calm.
In December, gunmen killed two policemen in the centre of the Saudi commercial capital of Jeddah before escaping through a security cordon thrown up around their hideout.
In December 2004, suspected Al Qaeda gunmen stormed the US consulate in Jeddah, triggering a bloody three-hour siege and a shootout that left five staff and four attackers dead.
The interior ministry announced early December that it had detained 136 Al Qaeda suspects, mostly Saudi nationals, in raids over three months.
Saudi Arabia announced in February 2006 it had thwarted a bid to blow up an oil processing plant, the world’s largest, at Abqaiq in the Eastern Province, and US officials said last October they feared possible attacks on oil installations in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.