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U.S Embassy attacked in Yemen

At least 16 people die as Yemeni troops fight assailants in Sana. There are no reports of U.S. casualties.

September 18, 2008|Shane Bauer and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

SANA, YEMEN — 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as the embassy's walls shook, said one U.S. citizen who asked that her name and the name of her organization remain unpublished for security reasons.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.

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