Deadly attacks hit Yemen defence ministry in Sanaa

The BBC's Shaimaa Khalil describes "plumes of smoke and gunfire" at the scene

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A series of attacks at Yemen's defence ministry have left at least 52 dead and some 162 hurt, officials say.

A suicide car bomb blew up at the gates of the complex in Sanaa's Bab al-Yaman district, at the entrance to the old city, and a gunbattle followed at a hospital inside.

Seven foreign medical staff - doctors and nurses - are among the dead.

Yemeni security forces are fighting regional rebels and al-Qaeda, while combating lawlessness and army splits.

Analysis

This is what's called "a complex attack", using a carefully timed combination of a suicide car bomb followed up by an armed assault. It was aimed at the heart of Yemen's defence and security establishment, to create an impression that peace and security will be impossible until the attackers' demands are met.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the attack fits the profile of previous jihadist assaults by militants linked to al-Qaida's franchise in Yemen, known as AQAP. To put this in context, that group is waging a two-pronged campaign against two enemies.

In Yemen it is targeting military, police and intelligence officials in its bid to seize territory and eventually overthrow the government.

But within its ranks is a cell of expert Saudi bomb-makers who have succeeded three times in smuggling explosives on board international flights, some of them bound for the West.

Defence Minister Mohammed Nasser is currently on a visit to Washington.

No group has said it carried out Thursday's attack.

Correspondents say it bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

However, one government minister has blamed people linked to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The dead include two German and two Vietnamese doctors, two nurses from the Philippines and one from India, according to the country's security commission.

Officials said the situation was under control and most of the gunmen had been killed.

"The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the ministry when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate," a ministry source said, quoted by Reuters.

The blast was heard hundreds of metres away.

"The explosion was very violent, the whole place shook because of it and plumes of smoke rose from the building," an eyewitness told the agency.

Continuous shooting

Officials said a second car followed whose occupants opened fire at the complex, and a battle ensued involving gunmen in military uniforms.

The gunmen occupied a hospital at the complex, they added, but security forces later regained control of the building, which was badly damaged.

Explosion in Sanaa - 5 December An eyewitness described the explosion as very violent
Police car blocking road to compound - 5 December Security forces cordoned off the area around the defence ministry compound
Onlookers watch scene of explosion - 5 December No reporters were allowed near the scene of the blast

"The assailants took advantage of some construction work that is taking place to carry out this criminal act," the defence ministry said.

Yemen transition

  • January 2011 - Start of mass anti-government protests
  • March 2011 - Police open fire on pro-reform demonstrators, killing 52
  • November 2011 - President Ali Abdallah Saleh agrees to hand power to deputy
  • February 2012 - Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi inaugurated as president after uncontested elections
  • June 2012 - Army recaptures three al-Qaeda strongholds in the south
  • September 2012 - Defence Minister survives car bomb in Sanaa that kills 11
  • March 2013 - Delayed national dialogue conference begins with aim of drafting new constitution
  • August 2013 - Several foreign embassies shut temporarily over fears of attacks by al-Qaeda

They were said to be armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades.

"Most" of the gunmen were killed, officials said, but it was not clear how many were involved.

The incident comes aid tight security in the last few weeks following a series of hit-and-run attacks on officials by militants on motorbikes, blamed on AQAP.

There were a large number of checkpoints and armoured vehicles on the streets even before the attacks, our correspondent says.

The country has been going through a painful transition since Mr Saleh was forced from office in 2011.

Presidential elections are due to be held in February 2014.

Sanaa map

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