Officials: Blast at WWI ceremony in Saudi Arabia wounds 3

ANGELA CHARLTON and AYA BATRAWY
·4 min read
Map locates attack in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
Map locates attack in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia

An explosion at a Saudi cemetery where American and European officials were commemorating the end of World War I wounded three people Wednesday, according to official statements.

The attack in the city of Jiddah follows on the heels of a stabbing last month that lightly wounded a guard at the French Consulate in the same city. It's not clear what motivated the stabbing or Wednesday's blast, but France has been the target of three attacks in recent weeks that authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists.

“Such attacks on innocent people are shameful and entirely without justification,” said a joint statement issued by the embassies of France, the U.K., Greece, Italy and the U.S., whose officials were in attendance.

One U.K. national suffered minor injuries, according to the British government, while Greece’s Foreign Ministry said a Greek policeman serving in the country's Consulate in Jiddah was wounded. The policeman, who was accompanying a consulate employee attending the ceremony, was hospitalized but his life was not in danger, according to the ministry.

A Saudi security officer was also lightly wounded, Saudi state media quoted a local official as saying. He added that an investigation was underway.

Nadia Chaaya, an official who represents French citizens living in Saudi Arabia who was at the ceremony, told The Associated Press there were about 20 people of different nationalities in attendance, making it difficult to say whether French diplomats were specifically targeted.

She earlier told the French network BFM about the moment she heard an explosion as the consul general was near the end of his speech.

“At that moment we didn’t really understand, but we felt that we were the target because directly we saw the smoke, and we were of course in panic mode,” she said. “We tried to understand, and we were most of all afraid to see if there was going to be a second wave.”

Diplomatic posts have been targeted in the past in Saudi Arabia. A 2004 armed assault on the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah blamed on al-Qaida killed five employees. In 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up near that same U.S. Consulate, wounding two guards.

Saudi state television broadcast from outside the cemetery and said the security situation had stabilized, without elaborating further.

While the motive behind the blast remains unclear, France has been the target of several such attacks in recent weeks, including the beheading of a teacher outside Paris who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his class during a debate on free expression. Three people were later killed in a church in the southern city of Nice.

The depictions of the prophet sparked protests and calls for boycotts of French products among some Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia. France has urged its citizens in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority countries to be “on maximum alert” amid the heightened tensions.

French President Emmanuel Macron has come under particular scrutiny among some Muslim leaders for his defense of the caricatures as being protected by free speech. This has aggrieved and angered some Muslims who view the depictions as blasphemous and a form of hate speech.

Saudi Arabia’s monarch and top clerics are among those who have condemned the depictions, but top Saudi clerics have also urged people to follow the prophet’s example of “mercy, justice, tolerance.”

King Salman is scheduled to deliver an annual address to the nation on Wednesday, laying out policy priorities for the coming year.

Wednesday marked the 102nd anniversary of the armistice ending World War I and is commemorated in several European countries. In France, which was particularly devastated by years of trench warfare in World War I, ceremonies were held to mark the anniversary of the armistice but also to honor all those who have died for France, including during the Second World War and in current military operations abroad and at home, where troops are deployed to protect against terrorist attacks.

In 1916, during World War I, Ottoman troops surrendered to the local troops backed by the British in Jiddah, a Red Sea port city. That sparked the start of the Kingdom of Hejaz, which later became part of Saudi Arabia’s founding in 1932.

Jiddah’s Non-Muslim Cemetery sits nears the city’s docks, hidden behind trees alongside a major thoroughfare in the city. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission — which maintains places of commemoration for military service members from British Commonwealth nations — shows just one soldier buried at the cemetery, Pvt. John Arthur Hogan, who died in June 1944.

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Charlton reported from Paris. Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.