September 18, 2008

16 Killed in Attack on U.S. Embassy in Yemen, Including 1 American

From wire reports

SAN'A, Yemen

A well-coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital Wednesday morning left 16 people dead, including a newly wed American woman, but the attack ultimately was thwarted by security barriers and Yemeni soldiers, six of whom died in a car-bomb explosion and an ensuing gun battle.

The attackers failed to breach the well-guarded compound's gates and get close to the building that houses U.S. officials.

An obscure group called Islamic Jihad, unrelated to the Palestinian organization, claimed responsibility for the attack. U.S. officials said the attack appeared similar to those orchestrated by al-Qaida.

Wednesday's operation was the deadliest by Islamic militants on a U.S. target in Yemen since the 2000 attack by al-Qaida on the guided missile destroyer Cole, in which 17 Norfolk-based sailors were killed. It also was one of the biggest and most elaborately organized attacks in the country this year, showing the continued resilience of Islamic militants in the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden even as the U.S.-allied government regularly arrests and kills militants.

"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 in an appearance at the White House with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who is assuming command of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.

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 Wednesday. They were apparently there to do paperwork for the husband's move to the United States when the attackers struck, said Elbaneh's brother, Ahmed.

Relatives acknowledged that Susan Elbaneh is related to Jaber Elbaneh, who is in custody in Yemen and faces U.S. charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

They stressed that had nothing to do with Susan and said she was an innocent victim of Wednesday's attack.

State Department officials said the attack began when a car bomb went off near a guard post outside the main entrance to the heavily protected embassy.

Frightened employees and visitors at the embassy lay down on the floor as the walls shook, said one U.S. citizen who asked that her name and the name of her organization remain unpublished for security reasons.

"I was sitting with some people in a meeting, and we heard this loud bomb, and there was some smaller explosions," the woman said in a telephone interview.

"They said, 'Get under your desks,'

" she said, referring to embassy staff. "It was a little unnerving. Everybody was frightened at a certain point. Nobody knew what was going on."

Within minutes, armed attackers on foot appeared, dressed in military uniforms that obscured their identity.

They fired on the first Yemeni security forces that arrived. A second vehicle appeared and tried to drive toward the main entrance.

The attackers sought to break through the outer wall to the embassy, but they failed, officials said.

Witnesses told Arab-language television that at least 10 minutes of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade explosions between the alleged attackers and security forces followed the explosion.

Footage on television showed a plume of fire and smoke rising from near the embassy. Yemeni soldiers riding olive-green pickups mounted with machine guns drove in and out of the blast site, which was cordoned off.

Gray military helicopters hovered overhead, landing near the embassy.

At the scene, a Yemeni soldier cried out after the fighting subsided: "What kind of animals did this?" he said. "Who could kill innocent people like this? These people aren't Muslims."

Security forces clamped down on the capital's major roadways, imposing checkpoints and searching cars in anticipation of further attacks. The attack occurred about 9:15 a.m. during the holy month of Ramadan, when shops and businesses remain closed until about 10 a.m. in San'a. The Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the attack several hours later.

The government of President Ali Abdullah Salah has been struggling to maintain order while facing a renewed threat by extremists as well as sectarian war in the north and a separatist drive in the south.

"Yemen is a place where al-Qaida can find refuge because the government is weak and there are official elements that have connections to al-Qaida," said Bernard Haykel, professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University.

"There is also tremendous sympathy for al-Qaida among the people."

Haykel said the Yemeni government had tried to make a deal with Islamic extremists.

"The understanding was that they wouldn't do anything domestically," he said in a telephone interview. "Clearly ... that's broken down."

This story was compiled from reports by the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press.

American killed

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 U.S. Embassy, family members said Wednesday.

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