AT least 20 people were killed when a suicide bomber and gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked Yemen’s defence ministry compound in the capital, Sanaa.
Foreign medical staff were said to be among the dead, with witnesses saying the gunmen deliberately targeted them, killing four doctors and four nurses.
No-one claimed responsibility for the attack yesterday, but a Yemeni expert on Islamist militant affairs said the “suicide nature of the attack” pointed to al-Qaeda.
Yemen has been grappling with al-Qaeda-linked militants who have repeatedly attacked government officials and installations over the past two years.
The security threat is an international concern. Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the branch of al-Qaeda based there has plotted attacks against western targets.
The attack on Thursday began as ministry employees were arriving for work when a vehicle exploded at the compound’s gate, sources said.
“The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the ministry, when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate,” one source said.
The massive blast shook the bustling Bab al-Yemen neighbourhood on the edge of Sanaa’s old city, a warren of market stalls and stone tower houses decorated with stained glass windows and ornate plasterwork.
Plumes of smoke billowed over the area, whereYemen’s central bank is also located.
“The explosion was very violent, the whole place shook because of it and plumes of smoke rose from the building,” said an eyewitness.
Security forces retook the compound after killing most of the attackers, the ministry said, making no reference to a suicide attacker.
Medics and a ministry official said the gunmen pulled a western doctor and a Filipina nurse into the hospital’s courtyard and shot them in front of local staff.
A medical source who works at one of the hospitals where some of the victims were taken said a total of two female Yemeni doctors, a Filipino surgeon, a western doctor and four foreign nurses from India and the Philippines were shot dead. Ambulance sirens and gunshots were heard after the blast as a second vehicle entered the compound carrying armed men dressed in Yemeni army uniforms and exchanged fire with soldiers.
Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi later visited the compound, met senior military officials and ordered an investigation. Yemeni analyst Abdelrazzaq al-Jamal drew parallels with an attack claimed by al-Qaeda on a military base in eastern Yemen in September.
“The operation carries the fingerprints of al-Qaeda because of the suicide nature of the attack,” he said. The ministry said the militants struck at an area were construction work was taking place near the hospital facility. It said that most of the gunmen were “wiped out” in the battle but that two had fled into a nearby building where they were pursued by security forces.
A military source put the death toll at more than 20, including medical staff, soldiers and gunmen, and said dozens were also wounded.