YEMEN’s defence minister escaped an assassination attempt yesterday but at least 12 people died in a car bombing that followed the killing of al-Qaeda’s second in command in the country, officials said.
Witnesses said the blast happened as Maj-Gen Muhammad Nasir Ahmad’s motorcade left the prime minister’s office in Sanaa after a cabinet meeting. Interior Minister Abdul Qader Qahtan told state television that seven security guards and five civilians had been killed and 12 other people wounded.
One vehicle carrying security personnel was destroyed but the minister, who was travelling in a different armoured-plated car, survived. Aides said he was unhurt and had told Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa he was safe.
"A booby-trapped car waited for the motorcade of the minister near the government offices and as soon as it moved, it exploded," a security source told Reuters.
"A security car was totally destroyed and all its occupants were killed, but the minister survived because his car is armoured."
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which followed the killing of the deputy leader of the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, Said al-Shehri, in an attack last week. Al-Qaeda blames the defence minister for leading a campaign that drove it from strongholds in southern Yemen, an area that has become of increasing concern to the US in its campaign against Islamist militants.
Yemen claimed a major victory in its battle with al-Qaeda this week with the death of Shehri, although public anger about US drone attacks remains strong because of civilian deaths. Shehri was wanted by Yemeni, Saudi and US authorities over his role in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A former inmate of the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Shehri was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007, but after time on a Saudi militant rehabilitation programme he escaped to Yemen and possibly had a role in a 2008 attack on the US embassy. Last year Yemen claimed it had killed him, only for it to emerge he was still at large.
"Shehri’s death is a painful blow to al-Qaeda after the grievous losses it suffered in Abyan," state-owned daily al-Thawra said in a front-page headline, referring to a province from which the army had forced Islamist militants this year.
Officials said it was the fourth assassination attempt on the defence minister since a new government was formed last December, after a power transfer deal under which long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down.
Ten people were killed last week in an apparent drone attack that missed its target, or was based on wrong information — further stoking public anger over US operations in Yemen, a new frontline in Washington’s global war on al-Qaeda.
There was conflicting information on how Shehri died, highlighting the government’s awkward position in a drone war that many Yemenis are sceptical about.
While the government claimed it was an army operation, security sources said that he died in a US drone attack last Wednesday in Hadramout.