U.S Embassy attacked in Yemen

Special to The Times

A well-coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital Wednesday morning left 16 people dead, but was ultimately thwarted by security barriers and Yemeni soldiers, six of whom perished in a car bomb explosion and ensuing gun battle.

No American personnel were reported hurt. The attackers failed to breach the well-guarded compound’s gates and get close to the building housing U.S. officials.

An obscure group called Islamic Jihad, unrelated to the Palestinian organization of the same name, claimed responsibility. U.S. officials said the attack appeared similar to those orchestrated by Al Qaeda, though the assailants’ identities remained undetermined.


The violence added to fears about instability in the impoverished and war-torn Arabian peninsula nation of 23 million, beside a critical route through which nearly 5% of the world’s crude oil passes every day.

Wednesday’s operation was the deadliest by Islamic militants on a U.S. target in Yemen since the 2000 attack by Al Qaeda on the destroyer Cole in the port of Aden. It was also one of the biggest and most elaborately organized attacks in the country this year, showing the continued resilience of Al Qaeda in the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden even as the U.S.-allied government regularly arrests and kills militants.

“This attack is a reminder that we are at war with extremists who will murder innocent people to achieve their ideological objectives,” President Bush said in an appearance at the White House with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who is assuming command of all American forces in the Middle East.

State Department officials said the attack began with a car bomb going off near a guard post outside the main entrance to the heavily protected embassy.

Frightened employees and visitors lay down on the floor as the embassy’s walls shook, said one U.S. citizen who asked that her name and the name of her organization remain unpublished for security reasons.

“I was sitting with some people in a meeting and we heard this loud bomb and there was some smaller explosions,” the woman said in a telephone interview.

“They said, ‘Get under your desks,’ ” she said, referring to embassy staff. “It was a little unnerving. Everybody was frightened at a certain point. Nobody knew what was going on.”

Within minutes of the blast, armed men appeared on foot, dressed in military uniforms that obscured their identity.

They fired on the first Yemeni security forces that arrived. A second vehicle appeared and tried to drive toward the main entrance. The attackers sought to break through the outer wall to the embassy, but failed to do so, officials said.

Witnesses told Arabic-language television that the initial explosion was followed by at least 10 minutes of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade explosions as the attackers clashed with the security forces.

TV news showed images of a plume of fire and smoke rising from near the embassy. Yemeni soldiers riding olive-green pickup trucks mounted with machine guns drove in and out of the blast area, which was cordoned off. Gray military helicopters hovered overhead, landing near the embassy.

At the scene, a Yemeni soldier cried out after the fighting subsided. “What kind of animals did this?” he said. “Who could kill innocent people like this? These people aren’t Muslims.”

Among the dead were six Yemeni soldiers, six of the attackers, three Yemeni civilians and an Indian national, the official news agency Saba reported.

Security forces clamped down on the capital’s major roadways, setting up checkpoints and searching cars to prevent any further attacks. The assault occurred about 9:15 a.m.; shops and businesses were closed in Sana, not opening until about 10 a.m. because it is the month of Ramadan.

The Islamic Jihad group’s claim of responsibility came several hours later.

“We, the organization of Islamic Jihad in Yemen, declare our responsibility for the suicide attack on the American Embassy in Sana,” read a statement from the group, according to news agencies.

Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said the attack bore “all the hallmarks” of an Al Qaeda operation because it involved multiple vehicles and attackers on foot who tried to enter the embassy compound.

The government of President Ali Abdullah Salah has been struggling to maintain order amid a renewed threat by extremists as well as sectarian war in the north and a separatist drive in the south. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Vickers, the civilian who oversees the Pentagon’s Special Operations forces, visited Yemen last week to discuss security cooperation between Washington and Sana.

Experts say Al Qaeda has exploited the Salah government’s ineffectiveness to carve out a home in Yemen.

“Yemen is a place where Al Qaeda can find refuge because the government is weak and there are official elements that have connections to Al Qaeda,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University. “There is also tremendous sympathy for Al Qaeda among the people.”

Haykel said the government had tried to make a deal with Islamic extremists.

“The understanding was that they wouldn’t do anything domestically,” he said in a telephone interview. “Clearly . . . that’s broken down.”

Yemeni security forces staged a raid last month against suspected Al Qaeda loyalists in the remote Hadhramaut district, killing five, including Hamza Kaaiti, alleged mastermind of a March mortar attack on the U.S. Embassy that killed one Yemeni security guard and wounded a dozen students at a nearby school.

“They promised in their statements following [the raid] that they would take revenge for that,” said Mohammed Qadhi, a freelance journalist in Sana.


Special correspondent Bauer reported from Sana and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut. Times staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.



Increasing violence

A look at some attacks in Yemen:

Sept. 17, 2008: Attackers armed with automatic weapons and grenades and including at least one suicide car bomber assault the U.S. Embassy in Sana. Sixteen people are killed, including six assailants.

March 18, 2008: Three mortar shells miss the U.S. Embassy and crash into a high school for girls nearby, killing a security guard and wounding 13 students.

Jan. 18, 2008: Suspected Al Qaeda militants open fire on a convoy of tourists in Yemen’s eastern Hadhramaut region, killing two Belgian women and their Yemeni driver.

July 2, 2007: A suicide car bomber attacks tourists visiting a temple in central Yemen, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis.

Dec. 5, 2006: A gunman opens fire outside the U.S. Embassy but is shot and arrested by Yemeni guards. The gunman says he wanted to kill Americans.

Sept. 15, 2006: Suicide bombers try to strike two oil facilities in Yemen with explosives-packed cars, but authorities foil the attacks. Four bombers and a security guard are killed.

Oct. 6, 2002: Al Qaeda bombers in a boat ram a French oil tanker, the Limburg, in Aden, killing one crew member.

March 15, 2002: A Yemeni man lobs a sound grenade into the U.S. Embassy grounds, injuring no one a day after Vice President Dick Cheney held talks with officials at Sana airport.

Oct. 12, 2000: Al Qaeda bombers in a small boat blow a gaping hole in the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors.


Source: Associated Press