Attackers exploded a vehicle bomb outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen on Wednesday in what appeared to be a well-coordinated assault that failed to breach the walls but killed 16 people, including a newly wed New York woman.
It was the deadliest direct assault on a U.S. Embassy in a decade claiming the lives of six attackers, six guards and four civilians.
Yemeni security officials said civilian casualties could have been far worse. The streets were relatively empty because many people sleep late during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
About 9:15 a.m., multiple explosions from the car bomb and grenades shook the affluent Dhahr Himyar district, a residential area dotted with five-star hotels and other embassies. Palls of black smoke rose over the street, lined with modern buildings in the style of the centuries-old white-trimmed mud brick houses that are a landmark of San'a's Old City. Snipers hidden across the street fired on emergency personnel rushing to the scene.
The attackers, some dressed in army uniforms, were stopped short of the compound's walls by guards and massive security barriers, but civilians waiting in line for visas outside the embassy were among the casualties. Three police officers and seven civilians were injured, including children in a residential compound across the street from the embassy, home to many Westerners.
Susan Elbaneh, 18, a U.S. citizen from Lackawanna, N.Y., who was recently wed in Yemen in an arranged marriage, was killed along with her Yemeni husband as they stood outside the embassy, family members said. They were apparently there to do paperwork for the husband's move to the U.S. when the attackers struck, said Elbaneh's brother, Ahmed.
She had been in Yemen for a month for the marriage on Aug. 25.
President Bush called the attack “a reminder that we are at war with extremists who will murder innocent people to achieve their ideological objectives.”
The U.S. counts Yemen as an ally in the war on terrorism. But U.S. officials have long been frustrated over what is seen as a “revolving door” policy toward al-Qaida militants by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government.
Yemen has let some convicted militants go free after promising to refrain from violence.
In 2006, a group of 23 militants escaped from a high-security prison, including 10 people convicted in al-Qaida's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole destroyer in Aden harbor.
State control is weak in the impoverished country — the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden — tribes are strong and many mountainous rural areas are lawless, giving ample room for militant training camps.
The U.S. Embassy has been attacked four times since 2003, most recently in March when a volley of mortars targeting the compound hit a neighboring girls high school instead, killing a Yemeni guard and wounding dozens of girls.
There was no immediate public claim of responsibility for the attack. Some Yemeni security officials said a local militant group called Islamic Jihad, which Yemeni authorities have cracked down on previously, claimed responsibility. But Yemeni authorities have blamed the group in past attacks that have later been claimed by al-Qaida in postings on the Internet. The group is unrelated to the Palestinian group of the same name.
But suspicion was immediately centered on al-Qaida, which has long operated in the country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.