SANA, Yemen — A car bomb exploded Tuesday alongside a convoy of vehicles used by Yemen’s defense minister, killing seven bodyguards and five civilians in the heart of the capital, Sana, while the minister escaped unharmed, government and hospital officials said. The attack came one day after a top Al Qaeda operative was killed in what Yemeni officials called a US drone strike.
The episodes spoke to continued turmoil in poverty-stricken Yemen, where the United States is seeking to eradicate militant cells held responsible for a number of conspiracies, including an attempt by an operative of Al Qaeda to detonate an underwear bomb on a flight bound for Detroit in December 2009.
The blast Tuesday in downtown Sana tore through a thoroughfare between the Cabinet office and the state radio building, shattering buildings and wrecking a vehicle carrying the seven bodyguards, seconds after the minister, Major General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, had passed by in another vehicle after a weekly Cabinet meeting.
The Interior Ministry said other explosives were found nearby and defused. The blast wounded 15 people. State TV reported that Ali al-Ansi, head of the National Security Agency, Yemen’s intelligence agency, was fired after the attack.
No group claimed responsibility in the hours immediately after the attack, which seemed similar to earlier bombings ascribed to Al Qaeda. Militants have struck at government targets in Yemen in retaliation for the government’s campaign against Al Qaeda cells.
The bombing Tuesday was not the first attempt on Ahmed’s life.
Last year, he was the target of two assassination attempts in southern Yemen in less than a month, one in Abyan Province and the second in the port city of Aden. And in May, a man disguised as a soldier blew himself up amid a military parade rehearsal near the presidential palace in Sana, killing hundreds, just before Ahmed had been expected to greet the troops.
Tuesday’s attack came a day after state media in Yemen said Saeed Ali al-Shihri, the second in command for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemen-based regional affiliate of Al Qaeda — was killed along with six other militants by an airstrike in the eastern Hadramawt region.
Shihri, a Saudi citizen released from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2007 after six years of incarceration, escaped an initial drone attack and made off into the desert, witnesses in the region said, but the remotely piloted aircraft tracked him down.
Yemeni military officials said the missile was probably fired by a US-operated drone. The Associated Press reported that two senior US officials confirmed Shihri’s death but not any US involvement. Strikes by remotely piloted aircraft against militants in Yemen have been reported in the past, including some against US citizens.
Less than two weeks ago, an airstrike hit a vehicle carrying suspected militants in eastern Yemen, killing eight.
At the time, the AP quoted a Yemeni official as saying that the attack, the third in a week, had been carried out by a US drone.
In July, relatives of three US citizens killed in drone strikes in Yemen last year filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against four senior national security officials. The suit, in US District Court in Washington, was a new development in the legal debate over the Obama administration’s use of drones in pursuit of terrorism suspects.
The first strike, on Sept. 30, killed a group of people including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico, and Samir Khan, a naturalized US citizen who lived at times in New York and North Carolina.
The second, on Oct. 14, killed a group of people including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was born in Colorado.
The Yemeni authorities have fought a long campaign against encroachment by Al Qaeda militants, who have sought to show their resolve by striking back.
In June, an important military commander was assassinated in Aden shortly after the Yemeni government announced a major military victory.
The commander, Major General Salim Ali Qatn, died when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of his vehicle, the authorities said. Qatn’s driver and another man traveling with him were also killed.