Yemen’s newly appointed Information Minister Ali Ahmed al-Amrani escaped an assassination attempt on Tuesday as he was leaving government headquarters in Sana'a, a government official told AFP.
“Three bullets targetted Amrani’s car as he left the government headquarters following a cabinet meeting,” the official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The minister, a member of the opposition named to the post in December as part of a deal that will see President Ali Abdullah Saleh officially quit on February 21, was unhurt.
Amrani was a member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress who joined the opposition along with several other party members last March in protest over a deadly crackdown on anti-regime protests by the president’s loyalists.
The attack is the first on government officials since a unity government was formed on December 7 under the Gulf-brokered power transfer deal that gave an equal number of seats to the GPC and opposition.
Saleh is in the United States for medical treatment after being seriously wounded in a bombing at the presidential palace in Sana’a in June.
In November, after 10 months of bloody protests, he signed a deal by which he transferred constitutional powers to his deputy Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi who is the sole candidate for next month’s presidential polls.
Qaeda militants killed
Meanwhile, at least 12 al-Qaeda militants, including four local leaders, were killed in a drone strike in southern Yemen, a tribal chief said in what he called one of the biggest U.S. strikes against the group.
Residents said the unidentified drone attacked the militants overnight who were travelling in two vehicles east of the city of Lawdar in Abyan provice.
The tribal leader in the area told Reuters that at between 12 and 15 people were killed in the attack, including at least four leaders or prominent figures in a local Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Residents said no civilians were hurt in the strike.
“This can be considered as one of the biggest American strikes because it targeted a large number of al-Qaeda leaders at the same time,” the tribal leader, who declined to be identified, told Reuters by telephone.
“Unlike in previous attacks, this one seems to have achieved its goals and, unlike previous attacks, it did not result in civilian casualties.”
Some previous attacks have caused large numbers of civilian casualties. In one of the deadliest strikes in late 2009, more than 40 civilians, including women and children, died in an air strike which Washington said targeted al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda militants have regrouped in the rugged mountains of Yemen after successive blows in Saudi Arabia and Iraq over the past few years. They exploited months of protests against Saleh, last year to broaden their control on swathes of territories in Yemen’s south.
One of those killed was identified by local tribal leaders as Abdel-Munem al-Fatahani, who they said was wanted by the United States for alleged links to attacks on the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker in 2002.
But Yemeni officials said Fatahani, who had survived at least two previous assassination attempts in recent years, was only wanted by Yemeni authorities.
A spokesman for al-Qaeda confirmed the strike but said only three members were killed and two were wounded. There was no immediate comment from Washington.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, Yemeni security sources said that at least three al-Qaeda militants were killed in a clash with government soldiers outside Radda, a small town located 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sana’a which was briefly captured by al-Qaeda earlier this month.
The sources said five Yemeni soldiers were injured in the clash, which targeted Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of assassinated U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Dahab, who led the assault on Radda, was not hurt in the clash, but tribal sources said five Yemeni soldiers also died.
U.S., Saudi Arabia worried
The United States has repeatedly used drones in Yemen to attack militants from AQAP, described by CIA Director David Petraeus recently as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad”.
In a prepared testimony for a joint House-Senate intelligence committee hearing last September, Petraeus said that AQAP was behind the December 2009 plot to blow up a U.S. airliner as it approached Detroit and a 2010 effort to send bombs hidden in computer printers on two cargo aircraft.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been deeply worried about the expansion of al Qaeda in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda militants already control swathes of land in Abyan province and the assault and capture of Radda underscored concerns that protracted political upheaval in Yemen over the fate of Saleh could give al-Qaeda’s regional wing a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
The United States has scored major success in previous strikes, including the killing of Awlaki, who was described by U.S. officials as “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda in Yemen.
In December, a U.S. drone attack killed Abdulrahman al-Wuhayshi, a relative of AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Wuhayshi was once Osama bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan. Two months earlier, two teenage relatives of Awlaki were among 24 people killed in an air strike in southern Yemen, sparking angry reactions by members of the powerful tribe.