SANAA: Suspected Al-Qaeda militants attacked Yemen’s presidential palace Friday, killing five guards and triggering a fierce gunfight as the jihadists hit back at an army offensive aimed at crushing them.
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi was not at the palace in the capital when gunmen attacked a checkpoint manned by guards outside the compound, a security source told AFP.
Hadi, whose government has stepped up a war on the Arabian Peninsula country’s Al-Qaeda offshoot, does not live in the palace and only uses it for daytime meetings.
In addition to the dead, other guards were captured in the unprecedented attack on the checkpoint located just 700 metres (yards) from the palace, the source added.
An exchange of fire last more than 20 minutes, according to other security sources and witnesses, amid reports that at least three assailants were killed.
Separately, Defence Minister Mohamed Nasser Ahmad and two senior security officers escaped unharmed when Al-Qaeda gunmen ambushed their convoy as they returned from a tour of south Yemen, where the army is battling the jihadists.
The ambush came hours after Ahmad vowed to crush Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, saying their end would come soon.
The army launched a major offensive on April 29 against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) strongholds in three provinces, two in the south and one in the centre of the country, and claims it has inflicted heavy losses on the jihadists.
A top US official on Friday praised the Yemeni forces “brave” efforts and strongly condemned the series of attacks.
“We commend Yemen on its ongoing military offensive against Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“AQAP is a grave threat to both Yemeni and American security and the US government welcomes the actions of Yemen’s brave forces to counter this group.”
Sanaa has been on alert for days and tensions rose after the army said troops had entered Azzan, a jihadist bastion in southern Shabwa province, prompting the United States to close its Sanaa embassy on Thursday.
That night security forces killed Al-Qaeda commander Shayef Mohammed Said al-Shabwani, one of the network’s most wanted leaders suspected of masterminding the abduction of Western diplomats.
Shabwani died in an gunfight near the presidential palace after resisting arrest at a checkpoint. Another suspect was killed and three more were arrested, a source said.
Authorities say Al-Qaeda commanders were among dozens of jihadists killed since the army launched its offensive in the south, where US 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.
– ‘Desperate acts’ –
On Monday, the interior ministry warned that “huge losses” in jihadist ranks “will push Al-Qaeda to commit hysterical and desperate acts.”
State media also said Friday that security forces had killed two foreign Al-Qaeda fighters — a Saudi and a Dagestani — and captured two French citizens of Tunisian origin belonging to the group.
Earlier, a bomb on a bus wounded 11 policemen in an eastern district of the capital where the British and Qatari embassies are located, the day after assailants opened fire on guards outside the Saudi diplomatic mission.
In other violence Friday, the army said six suspected jihadists were killed in clashes in the central province of Baida.
In Shabwa province, in southern Yemen, officials said security forces killed an explosives expert from Russia’s Dagestan and a “terrorist” from Saudi Arabia, without saying when.
Two French jihadists of Tunisian origin were arrested on Thursday as they tried to flee Yemen from an unidentified airport, the official Saba news agency said.
On Monday, gunmen 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 the European Union delegation
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.