SANAA/ADEN: Suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen killed five guards and captured others Friday in an attack on a checkpoint outside the Yemeni presidential palace in the capital Sanaa, a security source said.
The source told AFP that President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi was not at the palace at the time of the attack, which came amid heightened tensions in Yemen where the army is pressing an offensive against Al-Qaeda militants.
The gunmen “attacked a checkpoint manned by the presidential guard in Sanaa, killing five soldiers and capturing a number of others,” the source said, adding there were unconfirmed reports that the dead included two of the assailants.
Security sources and witnesses said there was an exchange of fire and that the gunbattle lasted more than 20 minutes.
The attack came amid high tensions in the capital, where a bombing wounded 11 police officers hours after security forces killed an Al-Qaeda commander.
Earlier in the day, the defense minister and two senior security officers escaped unhurt when Al-Qaeda militants ambushed their convoy in the south, as troops pressed an offensive against the jihadists in the region.
State media later said that Yemeni forces had killed two foreign Al-Qaeda fighters – a Saudi and a Dagestani – and captured two French citizens of Tunisian origin also belonging to the group.
The army launched a major offensive on April 29 against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds in three provinces in the south, and claims it has inflicted heavy losses on the jihadists.
Defense Minister Mohammad Nasser Ahmad, intelligence chief Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi and military police chief Awad Majwar al-Awlaqi were traveling from Abyan province to Shabwa province when they came under fire, a military official said.
They had just carried out a tour to monitor the military’s offensive when they were ambushed, but none were hurt in the attack or in subsequent clashes that lasted 15 minutes.
It was not immediately clear if there had been any casualties among the attackers.
Earlier, the defense minister vowed to crush Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, saying their end would come soon.
Sanaa has been on alert for days, and tensions rose after the army announced troops had entered Azzan, a major AQAP bastion in Shabwa, prompting the closure of the U.S. Embassy Thursday.
That night, security forces killed Al-Qaeda commander Shayef Mohammad Said al-Shabwani, who was suspected of masterminding the abduction of Western diplomats.
Shabwani was “one of Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous and wanted commanders,” a security force spokesman said, adding he was also involved in killing Yemeni policemen.
He was killed in a gunfight near the presidential palace after resisting arrest at a checkpoint. Another suspect was killed, and three more were arrested, two of whom were wounded, the source said.
And late Thursday, unidentified assailants opened fire on guards outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy without hitting anyone, another security source said. The gunmen escaped after the drive-by shooting.
The army said six suspected jihadists were also killed in clashes Friday in Baida province, as troops pressed ahead with their “successful” operation.
In Shabwa province, officials said security forces killed an explosives expert from Russia’s Dagestan and a “terrorist” from Saudi Arabia, without saying when.
And two French jihadists of Tunisian origin were arrested Thursday as they tried to flee Yemen from an unidentified airport, Saba said.
Authorities say Al-Qaeda commanders were among dozens of jihadists killed since the army launched its offensive 11 days ago in the south, where U.S. drone strikes this year have killed scores.
AQAP is regarded by Washington as Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise and has been linked to failed terror plots in the United States.
The jihadists took advantage of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that forced autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power to seize large swathes of southern and eastern Yemen.
The army recaptured several major towns in 2012 but has struggled to reassert control in rural areas, despite the backing of militiamen recruited from tribes.
The Interior Ministry Monday warned that “huge losses” in jihadist ranks “will push Al-Qaeda to commit hysterical and desperate acts.”
A State Department spokeswoman Wednesday said the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa would be temporarily closed to the public “due to recent attacks against Western interests in Yemen”.
The embassy closed in August with other Western missions after U.S. warnings of an Al-Qaeda attack.
Gunmen Monday killed a Frenchman in Sanaa and wounded another when they opened fire on their car. The pair worked for a private security company that officials said was guarding an EU delegation.
AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi vowed, in a rare video appearance last month, to attack Western “crusaders” wherever they are.
Al-Qaeda uses the term crusaders to refer to Western powers, especially those that have intervened militarily in Muslim countries.