APphoto_Mideast Yemen

A crater and damaged vehicles are seen outside the defense ministry in Sana, Yemen, after an attack there Thursday. (Yemen Defense Ministry / December 5, 2013)

SANA, Yemen -- In a strike that bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, assailants in military uniforms staged a brazen daytime assault Thursday on Yemen’s defense ministry, setting off a daylong battle that killed at least four dozen people and left scores injured, with some foreigners believed to be among the dead.

The attack, which terrorized residents of a crowded district in the capital’s old city, began with a thunderous car-bomb blast at the compound’s gate, and a separate push by fighters on foot and armed with assault weapons. Their target was a hospital within the ministry complex where some foreign aid workers were based. A Supreme Court judge and his wife were reported to have been killed.

Officials said the attackers wore military garb, apparently stolen, which fueled confusion among those trying to defend the ministry, which is the headquarters of Yemen's military. The assailants also may have used stolen government license plates on their vehicles, officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the early morning attack, but officials said the complex nature of the assault prompted them to suspect Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the organization’s most dangerous offshoots. Its leaders and fighters have been the frequent targets of U.S. drone attacks.

Yemen is strategically located on vital shipping routes, which makes its growing instability a serious concern to the United States and its allies. Al Qaeda has moved to exploit deepening chaos in the wake of the ouster of Yemen’s longtime leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

The central government has only a tenuous grip on security and is battling separate rebellions in the north and south.

By evening, hours after the initial strike, gunfire was still ringing out. Military officials said they thought that most or all of the assailants were dead, but that others could still have been holed up either in the ministry or nearby buildings.

Officials put the death toll at at least 47, but it was not clear whether that included attackers as well as civilians and military personnel in and near the complex. With the wounded flooding nearby hospitals and clinics, officials put out a call for blood donors.

[Update 10:49 a.m., Dec. 5: The Military and Security Supreme Committee, made up of senior military and security officials, later said that 52 people had been killed and 167 injured. The committee said there were 16 attackers; it was not clear whether they were among those listed among the dead and wounded.]

The suicide car bombing that began the attack was powerful enough to shatter windows for blocks around. The congested neighborhood is home to Yemen’s central bank as well as many residences and office buildings. People huddled indoors as military helicopters thudded overhead and heavy explosions rang out throughout the day.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ali reported from Sana and Times staff writer King from Cairo.