SANAA – A suicide bomber rammed an explosives-packed car into the Yemeni Defence Ministry complex Thursday, followed by an armed assault in which 52 people died, including seven foreign medical staff, officials said.
The brazen daylight attack on the sprawling facility followed a spate of hit-and-run strikes on military personnel and officials as the country struggles to complete a thorny political transition.
The attacks in the capital and in the south have generally been blamed on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which the United States regards as the jihadist network’s most dangerous branch.
“This terrorist act has killed 52 people,” Yemen’s supreme security committee said.
Two doctors from Germany, two from Vietnam and another from Yemen were killed, as well two female nurses from the Philippines and one from India, said the statement carried by the Saba news agency. They all worked at a hospital within the complex that bore the brunt of the attack.
Earlier, a medic at the hospital had said six doctors — a Venezuelan, two Filipinos and three Yemenis — were killed.
All the other “martyrs” were civilians and military personnel in the hospital, including a top Yemeni judge and his wife, the committee statement said. And 167 people were wounded, nine of them seriously.
“A car bomb driven by a suicide bomber forced its way into the western entrance of the ministry complex,” a security official said. “It was followed by another car whose occupants opened fire at the complex of buildings.”
The attack cames as Defence Minister Mohammed Nasser headed a military delegation on a visit to the United States.
The ministry said gunmen occupied the hospital after the explosion, but that security forces had regained control of the building. “The assailants took advantage of some construction work that is taking place to carry out this criminal act,” it said, without elaborating.
A security source said that, in another apparently coordinated attack, a gunfight raged outside the complex after the explosion, before government forces regained control and cordoned off the area.
State television aired gory footage of mangled bodies of what it said were suicide bombers, strewn in the hospital yard amid charred vehicles. It also showed massive destruction within the hospital, whose floors were stained with blood.
The channel broadcast appeals for blood donors to come to hospitals treating the wounded.
Smoke billowed across the complex on the edge of Baba al-Yaman neighborhood after the blast and as the firefight erupted. “I heard a series of explosions, and then an exchange of fire,” a wounded soldier said.
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi visited the hospital where his 90-year-old brother, Ahmed, was apparently an in-patient.
Yemen has been going through a difficult political transition since veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh stood down in February 2012 after a year of deadly protests against his 33-year rule. The transitional process aims to produce a new constitution, paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in February, but many hurdles remain.
There are growing demands for the secession of the formerly independent south, in addition to on-off fighting in the north between Shiite Muslim rebels and hardline Sunnis. A national dialogue that began in March and was originally due wrap up in September has yet to conclude.
“The terrorists behind this heinous crime aim to shake the security of Yemen . . . and hinder the political solution,” said Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which brokered Saleh’s exit deal.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, whose special envoy Jamal Benomar has been shuttling between the rival sides trying to get the national dialogue back on track, condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms.”
“The secretary-general firmly believes that the only path to a stable, prosperous and democratic Yemen is through the ongoing peaceful and all-inclusive national dialogue conference,” a statement said.
Yemen is also battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which often attacks the security forces, despite suffering setbacks in a major army offensive last year and repeated U.S. drone strikes on its commanders.
Last week, in an attempt to halt hit-and-run attacks, the authorities imposed a temporary ban on motorbikes in Sanaa to prevent shootings that have killed dozens of officials. Also last week, two gunmen on a bike killed a Belarussian defence contractor and wounded another.