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Suicide bomber kills at least 20 at Yemen's Defence Ministry - sources

Source: Reuters - Thu, 5 Dec 2013 05:55 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Eight medical staff killed, six foreign, sources say

* Two staff gunned down in front of their colleagues

* President tours site, orders an investigation

* Security in Yemen is a major international concern (Adds statement by UN Secretary General spokesperson)

By Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA, Dec 5 (Reuters) - A suicide bomber and gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked Yemen's Defence Ministry compound in the capital Sanaa on Thursday, killing at least 20, including foreign medical staff, sources said, in the worst single attack in Yemen in 18 months.

Medical sources said the gunmen targeted the medical personal on duty, killing as many as four doctors and four nurses. Government officials were not available to confirm the deaths.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, 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. The U.S.-allied country shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and the branch of al Qaeda that is 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, two sources inside the ministry said.

"The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the ministry, when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate," the Defence Ministry 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.

Smoke billowed over the area, where the country'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 employee who works in a nearby building.

Security forces retook the compound after killing most of the attackers, the Defence Ministry said in a statement on its website, making no reference to a suicide attacker.

Medics and a Defence 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 told Reuters a total of two female Yemeni doctors, a Filipino surgeon, a Western doctor and four foreign nurses from India and the Philippines were gunned down.

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 into the attack.

The United Nations condemned the attack, calling on all parties to cooperate with the investigation, the spokesperson for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

"He (the Secretary General) recalls that the Security Council has reaffirmed its readiness to consider further measures in response to any actions by individuals or parties that are aimed at disrupting the transition process," the statement read.

Yemeni analyst Abdelrazzaq al-Jamal, who specialises in Islamist militant affairs, 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," al-Jamal told Reuters.

CONSTRUCTION WORK

The Defence Ministry said the militants struck at an area were construction work was taking place near the compound's 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, many of them seriously. The Yemeni Health Ministry appealed for blood donations to help save the wounded.

Violence is common in Yemen, where an interim government is fighting southern secessionists and northern Houthi rebels in addition to the al Qaeda-linked militants, as well as severe economic problems inherited from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was forced out of office in 2011.

Islamist insurgents were emboldened by a decline in government control over the country during protests that eventually ousted Saleh.

They seized several southern cities before being driven out in 2012 in a government offensive aided by U.S. drone strikes.

Al Qaeda militants have since killed hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and members of the security forces in a series of attacks, particularly in the southern provinces of the country.

In August, a U.S. warning of a possible major militant attack in the Middle East prompted the closure of several Western missions in Yemen and U.S. missions in several other Arab states.

In July last year, a suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army uniform killed more than 90 people rehearsing for a military parade in Sanaa, and al Qaeda later took responsibility for the attack.

The defence minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad, escaped a car bomb on his motorcade in September 2012 that killed at least 12 other people. Ahmad is currently in the United States for annual discussions on relations between the two countries, officials said. (Reporting by Mohammad Ghobari; Writing by Maha El Dahan and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Angus McDowall and Sonya Hepinstall)

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