ADEN, YEMEN – Saudi militants were behind the massive car bombing and assault on Yemen’s military headquarters that killed more than 50 people, including foreigners, investigators said in a preliminary report released Friday. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for U.S. drone strikes that have killed dozens of the terrorist network’s leaders.
The attack — the deadliest in Sanaa since May 2012 — marked an escalation in the militants’ battle to undermine the U.S.-allied government and destabilize the impoverished Arab nation despite the drone strikes and a series of U.S.-backed military offensive against it. American forces also have been training and arming Yemeni special forces, and exchanging intelligence with the central government.
Military investigators described a two-stage operation, saying heavily armed militants wearing army uniforms first blew up a car packed with 500 kg of explosives near an entrance gate, then split into groups that swept through a military hospital and a laboratory, shooting at soldiers, doctors, nurses, doctors and patients.
Officials earlier said 11 militants were killed, including the suicide bomber who drove the car. It was not clear if the 12th attacker was captured or had escaped.
The investigative committee led by Yemeni Chief of Staff Gen. Ahmed al-Ashwal, said militants shot the guards outside the gates of the military hospital, allowing the suicide bomber to drive the car inside, but a gunfight forced him to detonate his explosives before reaching his target. It said militants killed included Saudis.
Two military officials told The Associated Press that wounded soldiers had told them the assailants who stormed the hospital separated out the foreigners and shot everybody in the head.
Other military officials said American security agents were helping with the investigations, but that could not be confirmed. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief reporters.
Yemeni commandos and other security forces besieged the militants before they could reach the ministry’s main building, preventing them from going further than the entrance gate. All the attackers were killed by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, according to the committee.
Yemeni security forces launched a manhunt in the capital to find the perpetrators, sparking gunbattles that killed five suspected militants and a Yemeni commando, officials said.
The committee, which sent its report to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, did not explain how it came to its conclusions The report was read on state TV and a copy was obtained by the AP.
Hadi met Friday with the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, to discuss the attack. He said “a number of assailants have been arrested,” without elaborating. He added that the “criminals will not escape justice.”
The report also raised the death toll to 56 and said more than 200 people were wounded. The foreigners killed included two aid workers from Germany, two doctors from Vietnam, two nurses from the Philippines and a nurse from India, according to Yemen’s Supreme Security Commission.
But a spokesman for the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said Friday that seven Filipinos were killed in the attack, including a doctor and nurses, while 11 others were wounded. The victims were among 40 Filipino workers in the hospital. Hernandez said the Philippines’ honorary consul reported that the others survived by pretending to be dead.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts. But officials from the military hospital said Friday that at least 10 foreigners had been killed.
In Berlin, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer also announced Friday that German employees of aid groups doing work on behalf of the German government have been ordered to leave Yemen “as quickly as possible” and “until further notice.” Schafer also said the German Embassy will continue to operate with reduced staff and “corresponding security measures.”
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group is known, is the product of a merger by the group’s Yemeni and Saudi branches after a crackdown in the powerful neighboring kingdom. Among its leaders is another Saudi, Ibrahim al-Asiri. The drone strikes and military offensives that began in June 2012 have driven militants from southern strongholds they had seized a year earlier, during Yemen’s political turmoil amid the Arab Spring.
AQAP’s media arm, al-Mallahem, said on its Twitter account Friday that it had targeted the Defense Ministry building because it “accommodates drone control rooms and American experts.” It said security headquarters used by the Americans in their war are “legitimate targets.”
The United States considers the Yemeni al-Qaida branch to be the most active in the world and Washington has escalated drone attacks against the militants, killing many of their leaders, including the group’s No. 2 figure, Saeed al-Shihri, a Saudi who was died of wounds sustained in a November 2012 strike.