Explosion near one of Islam’s holiest sites in Saudi Arabia

UPDATE: Saudi Interior Ministry says four security officers killed, five wounded in suicide bombing outside Islamic holy site in Medina.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An explosion went off outside one of Islam’s holiest sites Monday just as the call to sunset prayers was ending and hours after suicide bombers struck in two other Saudi cities. There were no immediate confirmations of anyone killed in the three incidents.

Sabq news site and other local media, quoting unnamed sources, said the explosion outside the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina was caused by a suicide bomber near a security building. The bomber reportedly sat briefly with security guards as they were breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast before detonating his vest.

Several cars caught fire and thick plumes of black smoke were seen rising from the site of the explosion as thousands of worshippers crowded the streets around the mosque.

The Interior Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment. No group claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.

The sprawling mosque where the Prophet Muhammad is buried is visited by millions of Muslims from around the world each year during pilgrimages to Mecca. The area was packed with pilgrims for prayer during the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in the kingdom on Tuesday.

Altayeb Osama, a 25-year old Sudanese visitor to Medina and resident of Abu Dhabi, said he heard two large booms about a minute apart as he was heading toward the mosque for sunset prayers. He said police and fire trucks were on the scene within seconds.

“It was very shocking that such a thing happens in such a holy place for Muslims, the second holiest place in the world. That’s not an act that represents Islam,” Osama said. “People never imagined that this could happen here.”

Qari Ziyaad Patel, 36, from Johannesburg, South Africa, was at the mosque when he heard a blast just as people were breaking their fast with dates. Many at first thought it was the sound of traditional, celebratory cannon fire, but then he felt the ground shake.

“The vibrations were very strong,” he said. “It sounded like a building imploded.”

Saudi Arabia’s state-run news channel al-Ekhbariya aired live video of thousands of worshippers praying inside the mosque hours after the explosion. It also showed footage of Saudi King Salman’s son and the Governor of Medina, Prince Faisal bin Salman, visiting security officers wounded in the blast and the site of the explosion.

Also Monday evening, at least one suicide bomber and a car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia, according to a resident there, several hours after another suicide bomber carried out an attack near the U.S. Consulate in the western city of Jiddah.

Saudi Arabia has been a target of Islamic State attacks that have killed dozens of people. In June, the Interior Ministry reported 26 terror attacks in the kingdom in the last two years.

The possibility of coordinated attacks across different cities in Saudi Arabia on the same day underscores the threat the kingdom faces from extremists who view the Western-allied Saudi monarchy as heretics
and enemies of Islam. Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

The attack in the eastern region of Qatif did not appear to cause any injuries, said resident Mohammed al-Nimr. His brother, prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, was executed in January after a court found him guilty of sedition and inciting violence for his role in anti-government protests.

Qatif is heavily populated by Shiites, who are a minority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom. Al-Nimr said that near the body of a suicide bomber was a car bomb that also went off around the same time. He told The Associated Press the bomber detonated his suicide vest when most residents of the neighborhood were at home breaking the daily Ramadan fast.

Several state-linked media reported that two suicide bombers died in the attack, which was aimed at a Shiite mosque.

IS and other Sunni extremists consider Shiites to be apostates deserving of death. IS affiliates in the kingdom have previously attacked Shiite places of worship, including a suicide bombing on a Shiite mosque in Qatif in May 2015 that killed 21 people.

Earlier Monday, the Interior Ministry said a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives when security guards approached him near the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah. The attacker died and the two security men were lightly wounded.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki was quoted in a statement as saying the guards noticed the man was acting suspiciously at an intersection on the corner of the heavily fortified consulate, near a hospital and a mosque.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia confirmed there were no casualties among consular staff. The Interior Ministry did not say whether the bomber intended to target the U.S. diplomatic compound.

The ministry said the bomber was not a Saudi citizen, but a resident of the kingdom. It gave no further details on his nationality. There are around 9 million foreigners living in Saudi Arabia, which has a total population of 30 million.

State-run al-Ekhbariya said security forces detonated six explosive devices found at the scene.

A 2004 al-Qaida-linked militant attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah killed five locally hired consular employees and four gunmen. The three-hour battle at the compound came amid a wave of al-Qaida attacks targeting Westerners and Saudi security posts.

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