BEIRUT

Middle East

Yemen defense minister survives attack, at least 12 killed

Female protesters brandish slogans such as “execute him” and “no immunity” in the demonstration against Saleh.

SANAA: A bomb attack Tuesday that targeted Yemen’s defense minister killed at least 12 people, shortly before President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi sacked top security chiefs considered loyal to ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The reshuffle, which was announced by state television, came after thousands of people marched against the former president’s immunity deal.

Among those removed from their posts was the head of the National Security force, Ali al-Anisi, and Saleh’s half-brother, Ali Saleh al-Ahmar, who was director of the office of the armed forces’ top commander. Anisi was replaced by the governor of Shabwa province in the south, Ali al-Ahmadi.

The two men have been compensated with low-profile posts as ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry, according to the decrees.

Hadi has embarked on a process to restructure security forces as stipulated by a Gulf-brokered deal that eased Saleh out of office and ended 13 months of protests against his regime.

Earlier, Yemen’s defense minister escaped a car bomb on his motorcade that killed at least 12 other people, a day after the U.S.-backed government said it had dealt a crushing blow to Al-Qaeda by killing its regional branch’s No. 2.

Witnesses said the blast occurred as Maj. Gen. Mohammad 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.

Aides said the minister was unhurt.

“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 armored.”

Officials say Tuesday’s attack was the fourth assassination attempt against the defense minister since a new government was formed last December, after a power transfer deal under which Saleh stepped down.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which followed the government’s announcement of the killing of Said al-Shehri, deputy head of the Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda blames the defense minister for leading a campaign that drove it from strongholds in southern Yemen, an area that Washington considers one of the main battlefields in its global campaign against Islamist militants.

Yemen’s government said it had killed Shehri in a military operation, but Yemeni security sources said he was one of six suspected militants killed last Wednesday in a strike by a U.S. drone.

The United States does not comment on its use of unmanned aircraft against militants, which has enraged the public in Yemen because of civilian deaths. A separate apparent drone strike last week hit the wrong target and killed 10 civilians.

“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 where the army had forced Islamist militants from this year.

Shehri was wanted by Yemeni, Saudi and U.S. authorities over his role in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

A former inmate of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Shehri was freed to Saudi Arabia by the George W. Bush administration in 2007.

He is suspected of a role in a 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy.

Last year Yemen claimed it had killed him, only for it to emerge Shehri was still at large.

“The government is certainly keen to show they are active and successful in the fight against Al-Qaeda and at the same time to tell its own people there is no active and open U.S. military action,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst with Cornerstone Global. “The authorities seem to have decided that claiming responsibility is less risky than saying the Americans did it.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Yemenis marched through Sanaa to demand Saleh be tried over corruption and the deaths of protesters, denouncing the U.S.- and Saudi-backed power transfer deal that gave him immunity from prosecution for standing down.

“The people want to topple his immunity,” they chanted, in a slight modification of the Arab uprising slogan “the people want to topple the regime.” Security forces closed off streets around Saleh’s house to prevent the marchers getting near.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2012, on page 9.

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