SAN'A, Yemen (AP) - Attackers armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and at least one suicide car bomb assaulted the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital on Wednesday. Sixteen people were killed, including six assailants, officials said. No Americans were hurt in the deadly attempt to breach the compound walls, which the U.S. said bore "all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack."
Multiple explosions rang out outside the heavily guarded facility, and gunfire raged for at least 10 minutes at the concrete checkpoints that ring the compound. The dead included six attackers, six Yemeni guards and four civilians, the state news agency SABA reported. Security officials said people lined up for visas were among those killed or wounded.
It was the deadliest attack on a compound that has been targeted four times in recent years by bombings, mortars and shootings. Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, has struggled to put down al-Qaida-linked Islamic militants, often to the frustration of U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Just last month, the State Department allowed the return of non-essential personnel and family members who had been ordered to leave after a volley of mortars targeted the embassy. The attack instead hit a girls high school next door, killing a Yemeni security guard and wounding more than a dozen girls.
In the 9:15 a.m. attack Wednesday, gunmen in a vehicle attacked a checkpoint outside the embassy with RPGs and automatic weapons, Yemeni security officials said. During the assault, suicide bombers in a vehicle made it through the checkpoint and hit a second, inner ring of concrete blocks, and detonated, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
"This attack is a reminder that we are at war with extremists who will murder innocent people to achieve their ideological objectives," President Bush said.
Some of the attackers were disguised in Yemeni military uniforms, according to a U.S. official in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity to describe an internal Bush administration briefing.
SABA, citing an unidentified Interior Ministry official, reported that two suicide car bombs detonated and made no mention of a gunbattle. There was no immediate explanation for the differing accounts. A senior U.S. official in Washington said at least five detonations were heard-but embassy officials spoke of "secondary explosions," suggesting some could have been RPG blasts.
The Washington official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an internal Bush administration briefing, said some of the attackers were dressed as Yemeni troops, and that Yemeni emergency personnel who first rushed to the scene were hit by heavy sniper fire from gunmen who had stationed themselves across the street from the embassy.
Yemeni security officials said a little-known group called Islamic Jihad, unrelated to the Palestinian group of the same name, claimed responsiblity for the attack. But Yemeni authorities have blamed the group in past attacks that have later been claimed by al-Qaida in postings on the Internet.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the embassy's security upgrades, combined with the response of security officials, stopped the attackers.
McCormack said the assault had "all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack."
The explosions hit passers-by and damaged nearby in a nearby residential compound where many Westerners live. Smoke rose from near the yellow concrete blocks that ring the embassy.
Ryan Gliha, an embassy spokesman, told The Associated Press that at least one car bomb detonated. Speaking by telephone from inside the large embassy compound, he could not immediately say if there was any damage to the facility from the blast outside.
At least seven wounded civilians, including children from nearby houses, were taken to the capital's Republican Hospital, a medical official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Security officials said civilian casualties could have been far worse but the streets were relatively empty because many people sleep late during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
One of the Yemeni security officials said the attack had the style of an al-Qaida operation. The attack highlighted the difficulties Yemen has had in reining in Islamic militants, who operate with considerable freedom in the impoverished country, where much of the mountainous countryside is lawless.
Yemen has a history of being unable to hang onto terrorist suspects. U.S. officials grumble about what they call lax detention policies. Seventeen suspects in the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors were arrested; ten of them escaped in 2003. One of the primary suspects in the attack, Jamal al-Badawi, escaped jail in 2004. He was taken back into custody last fall under pressure from the U.S. government.
The U.S. Embassy, in an eastern San'a district, has been targeted repeatedly-through previous attacks have been less organized. Besides the March mortar attack, a gunman opened fire outside the embassy in 2006. He was shot and arrested by Yemeni guards.
In March 2002, a Yemeni man lobbed a sound grenade into the embassy grounds a day after Vice President Dick Cheney made a stop for talks with officials at San'a airport. The attacker was sentenced to 10 years in prison but the sentence was later reduced to seven years.
In 2003, two people were fatally shot and dozens more were injured when police clashed with demonstrators trying to storm the embassy when tens of thousands rallied against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
This year has also seen mortar attacks near the Italian Embassy and a bombing on a compound housing foreigners, neither of which caused casualties.
The U.S. was angered when a Yemeni-American, Jaber Elbaneh, convicted in Yemen for planning attacks on oil installations, was freed as he appealed his 10-year prison sentence. Elbaneh has since been taken back in custody, Yemeni officials say, but San'a has refused American requests that Elbaneh be handed over to the U.S. for trial on charges of provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.
During a June visit to San'a, Bush's homeland security adviser Kenneth Wainstein pushed Saleh for "strong and serious measures to be carried out in Yemeni courts to try the terrorists and to hold them accountable."