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US Promises Saudi Arabia All Possible Help in Hunt for Kidnapped American - 2004-06-16

The State Department said Wednesday U.S. officials are working closely with Saudi authorities in an effort to secure the release of kidnapped American engineer Paul Johnson, the apparent prisoner of al-Qaida militants in Saudi Arabia. U.S. citizens in that country are again being "strongly urged" to depart.

Saudi authorities have the lead in the investigation of the case of Mr. Johnson, a 49-year-old engineer for the U.S. aerospace firm Lockheed Martin. He was abducted last Saturday.

The Bush administration is promising Saudi authorities all possible assistance, with the White House calling Mr. Johnson's safe return a "high priority" and saying President Bush is receiving regular updates on the situation.

An Islamist website Tuesday carried a video of the blindfolded American along with a statement by the kidnappers, who claim to be the Saudi branch of al-Qaida, threatening to kill him unless militants held in Saudi jails are freed by Friday.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials are still examining the video but have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

He said the kidnapping and the shooting death of another American defense contractor in Saudi Arabia Saturday have prompted urgent security briefings by U.S. officials with American private companies that have staff members and dependents in the Middle East country.

The spokesman reiterated a travel warning issued two months ago strongly urging private U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia to depart, while insisting under questioning there is no contradiction between that and administration's determination not to retreat in the face of terrorism:

"On the one hand we have to fight terrorists everywhere, where they are. On the other hand, we do have to give our best advice to U.S. citizens,? Mr. Boucher said. ?The fact that we give our best advice to U.S. citizens about how to protect themselves and whether we think they should or should not be at a given location has no bearing what-so-ever in the fight against terrorism. We can pursue the fight against terrorism through military diplomatic and other means, whether or not those individuals are in-country."

The U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia issued a so-called "warden message" to Americans in Saudi Arabia earlier this week, urging them to, among other things, to be alert to surveillance by possible attackers and to vary their daily routines, avoid places frequented by westerners, and maintain a low personal profile.

Before the latest incidents, there were an estimated 30,000 private Americans in Saudi Arabia, many of them supporting the country's oil industry and defense establishment.

A senior official who spoke to reporters here said "quite a lot" of Americans have departed the country in recent days but he said it was unclear how many have left permanently or were just leaving on summer vacations.

He also said it is not clear what effect a mass departure of U.S. citizens would have on Saudi Arabia's critical oil industry.

In the face of a number of terrorist incidents, the State Department in mid-April ordered the departure of non-essential employees and diplomatic dependents from the United States' embassy and two consulates in Saudi Arabia.

For security reasons, it does not disclose how many official Americans have left, or remain there.