Suspected Al Qaeda militants attacked Yemen’s presidential palace yesterday, killing five guards and triggering a fierce gunfight as the jihadists hit back at an army offensive aimed at crushing them.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was not at the palace in the capital when gunmen attacked a checkpoint manned by guards outside the compound, a security source said.
Hadi, whose government has stepped up a war on the country’s Al Qaeda offshoot, does not live in the palace and only uses it for meetings during the day.
In addition to the dead, other guards were captured in the unprecedented attack on the checkpoint located just 700m from the palace building, the source added.
An exchange of fire ensued and went on for more than 20 minutes, according to other security sources and witnesses, amid reports that at least three of the assailants were killed.
Separately, Defence Minister Mohamed Nasser Ahmed 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 Ahmed 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.
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 Mohamed Said al-Shabwani, one of the network’s most wanted leaders suspected of masterminding the abduction of Western diplomats.
Shabwani died in a 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.
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 yesterday that security 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.
Earlier, a bomb on a bus wounded 11 policemen in an eastern district of the capital.
In other violence yesterday, 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.
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, such as Britain, France and the United States.